One long take stupefies: A servant awakens on the floor of a luxurious bedroom and rouses his master the Chancellor (Bernard Rigal), who has a morning prayer in bed before moving to his armchair to have hands and feet washed, no rush; about three and a half minutes into the six-minute passage, the guests are called in bearing news of Blaise Pascal's invention, the world's first adding machine. Pascal was "a very boring character," Roberto Rossellini notes, and how to make a movie about a man who never made love in his life? The philosopher-mathematician (Pierre Arditi) is first seen filling in for his father's secretary, tabulating taxes with a quill pen on the edge of the frame, and dies in bed after receiving the sacraments, similarly tucked away in the corner of an august composition. In between, there's the terror of 17th-century France: A trial is rushed along so that taxes can be granted on time, the accused "witch" (Anne Caprile) is brought in, shattered by torture and ready to offer her soul to the system, the slow zoom from her face to the black clothes of her accusers elucidates Rossellini's distillation since Joan at the Stake. "Such things bewilder me," Blaise sighs. Reason stands next to malignant superstition, and also to faith and impulse -- when his sister Jacqueline (Rita Forzano) says that his calculations "will never be as beautiful as God's creatures," Pascal counters that his theorems are just as much a part of the Divine Creation. The protagonist employs syringe and water to verify the existence of a vacuum (thus, of infinity) and wages on the convenience of Heaven; Jacqueline follows emotion and dies in a Jansenist monastery, Pascal hangs on to "clear knowledge" through protracted sickness, and Rossellini honors both sides of the era's metaphysical split. (There's little room for the luminous feeling of wholeness of The Age of the Medici.) It ends as it began, wondrously bare, with the dawning realization that the most Socratic of directors has just given us a surreptitious portrait of Keats. With Giuseppe Addobbati, Christian De Sica, Livio Galassi, and Teresa Ricci.
--- Fernando F. Croce