A consummate filmmaker and tireless renaissance man, Roberto Rossellini was convinced during his later years that TV was the tool with which to elevate human consciousness. In “The Last Utopia: Television According to Rossellini,” the late helmer’s former associates speak of how the speed of filming for TV worked in their favor; but vet documaker Jean-Louis Comolli strolls rather than scampers through his material. Dauntingly Gallic in its approach, docu is a tantalizing introduction that doesn’t delve nearly deep enough into its topic. Still, fascinating kernels survive the needlessly turgid format.
Rossellini’s son, Renzo, speaks with admiration of his father, whose ambition was to recount on film (for TV broadcast) the history of mankind. Helmer devoted the last 15 years of his life to adapting the entire encyclopedia for the small screen.
That Italian pubcaster RAI — and, to a lesser extent, French TV — underwrote his work, freed Rossellini from the “capitalist” demands of commercial cinema. (His last script, nearly completed at the time of his death and lovingly perused on camera, was an account of Karl Marx’s young adulthood.)
Renzo confirms Rossellini broke with the film industry and really believed in TV as the medium of the future. In his last book, “Fragments of an Autobiography,” Rossellini spoke harshly of a society hooked on spectacle and entertainment, advocating the vital importance of using TV for educational purposes.
Between 1963 and his death in 1977, Rossellini conceived 60 hours of costume re-enactment television — for a paltry $100,000 an hour, by today’s currency.
His production designer illustrates some of the tricks of the trade for economically illustrating moments in history when human progress took a leap forward. Excerpts include the pyramids being built, Louis XIV running France, and the musings of Pascal and Descartes. (Docu fails to mention that, while shows were shot in 35mm on color stock, they were apparently telecast only once, and in B&W).
Renzo, speaking at the docu’s preem at the Cinema du Reel fest, says his father agreed to head the 1977 Cannes jury only if permitted to conduct a week of colloquia about the audiovisual future. Apparently, the jury’s Palme d’Or pick, “Padre padrone,” repped the first time a made-for-TV movie won.