Roberto Rossellini's 'The Taking Of Power' On DVD

Critic-at-large John Powers reviews a newly-released DVD of Roberto Rossellini's 1966 film The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. Originally made for Italian television, the costume-drama follows a rocky transfer of power amidst the lavish court rituals of 17th-century France.

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The Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, who died in 1977, was one of the most influential directors of all time. His work affected everyone, from Ingmar Bergman to Jean-Luc Godard to Martin Scorsese. At the end of his career, he made a series of historical movies for television that are today considered landmarks. Four of these films have just been released on DVD by Criterion. Three come in a package called "Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment." The fourth and most acclaimed is entitled "The Taking of Power by Louis XIV." Our critic at large, John Powers, says it's an interesting film to watch as our new president takes over in Washington.

JOHN POWERS: Like most Americans who watched the inauguration, I felt an enormous sense of pride. After all, in the grand sweep of history it's no small achievement that our transfer of power is not only orderly and democratic, but inclusive. The crowds lining the streets to see Barack Obama were no small part of his rise.

It wasn't always so, of course. Until a couple of centuries ago, authority lay in the hands of single individuals and tiny elites who jockeyed for power with virtually no concern for the vast majority. If nothing else, such struggles for control make fascinating material; just ask Shakespeare. And they inspired one of the greatest of all historical movies, "The Taking of Power by Louis XIV." Originally made for television in 1966 and just out on a terrific DVD from Criterion, Roberto Rossellini's film is almost a textbook on how to think about history.

The action begins in 1661 at the deathbed of Cardinal Mazarin, who'd essentially been running France during the childhood and debauched youth of King Louis XIV. With Mazarin gone, the fearful 22-year-old Louis must fend for himself. Nobody's betting he'll succeed. Even his mother thinks his real gift is for dissolute idleness. And our sense of Louis' fecklessness is only heightened by having him played by a shlubby non-actor, Jean-Marie Patte, a real-life clerk whose own discomforted acting neatly mirrors Louis own discomfort at playing the King.

But the mis-underestimated Louis doesn't flounder. Step by step, he starts consolidating power. He keeps his imperious mother off the ruling council. He makes a show of locking up nobles who might scheme against him. And he follows the great precept later enunciated by "The Godfather:" Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Turning Versailles into the center of the French solar system, Louis transforms court life into spectacle. Enforcing such ruinously expensive standards in cloths, cuisine and architecture, the potential rivals go broke and need him to get out of debt.

This is juicy stuff, but "The Taking of Power by Louis XIV" is not a glamorized potboiler like the Queen Elizabeth movies with Kate Blanchet, or a stolid costume drama you'd see on "Masterpiece Theater." Whether he was showing off the streets of Rome during the end of World War II, as he did in "Open City," or anatomizing a troubled marriage in "Voyage to Italy," Rossellini treated film as a way of getting to the heart of reality. Here, that means teaching us how history works. Rather than trying to make us identify with Louis or the other characters, he adopts a detached approach that strips away the usual stuff of historical filmmaking: you know, the fetish-ized attention to period decor or the romantic upheavals in the boudoir. Instead, he cuts to the essence of how the scared, seemingly inept Louis turned himself into the Sun King.

This isn't mere dead history; power doesn't change, after all, and though we now live in a Democracy, the problems Louis faces in taking control have clear parallels in contemporary Washington. Like Louis, President Obama must find a way of bringing rivals under his sway; think how he handled Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton. Like Louis, Obama must not lose touch with those who may oppose him; think of that dinner he had with conservative pundits or his decision to have Rick Warren deliver the invocation. And just as Louis made a weapon of royal spectacle, Obama knows that in modern, media-fueled democracies, a successful leader must be a master at turning big public events into a source of political strength.

Now, for all his care in dissecting Louis' maneuvers, Rossellini was not one to fall into power worship or to be blinded by reverence for supposedly great men. Quite the contrary. The Sun King may have enjoyed the longest reign of any ruler in European history, over 70 years, but Rossellini doesn't confuse the selfish shrewdness that kept Louis on the throne with any form of true greatness. By the end, we see Louis as a small, lonely, still nervous individual with nothing particularly grand about him. In fact, far from embodying the splendor or power, Louis XIV comes to show how vacant, even deathly, power can be when it's only about itself, when it's devoted to nothing but its own perpetuation. Rossellini reminds us that the proper measure of any leader - be it a king or a president - lies not in the ability to take power, but what you do with it once you've got it.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed Robert Rossellini's "The Taking of Power by Louis XIV," which has been released on DVD by Criterion.

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GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Bob Perdick. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Jonathan Menjivar directed the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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