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Rituals and Royalty from Roberto Rossellini and in Mobile, Alabama

Rituals and Royalty from Roberto Rossellini and in Mobile, Alabama (photo)

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Roberto Rossellini has never been the most accessible of cinema culture demigods — his neo-realist trilogy seems more influential than timeless these days, and his Ingrid Bergman films often feel offhand and crude. In 1962, as critic Colin McCabe recounts in his essay for Criterion’s release of “The Taking of Power by Louis XIV” (1966), Rossellini renounced cinema per se, and promised he would from then on make only historical films for television. It’s these films, in a string that lasted 13 years, that are the hardest to see and the most frustrating; the filmmaker’s perspective grew more inhospitable and pedagogic the more he saw postwar culture slide into amnesiac self-indulgence. But, ironically, this irascibility resulted in a kind of stringency Rossellini never had before; “Louis XIV” may be the least deliberately “passionate” film ever made by an Italian, perhaps partially because it is French.

There’s no underselling the movie’s arid wax museum affect; in detailing the history of the Sun King’s ascension, from the death bed of Cardinal Mazarin (when Louis was 22) to the new monarch’s consolidation of control over a fractious kingdom, Rossellini paints every scene like a shadowless Baroque tableaux, keeping the pacing methodical, shooting in actual Versailles spaces where camera movement was sometimes difficult and instead using zooms to capture entire courses of action without resorting to intercutting. (This extends to off-screen action, which always rolls onward out of view.) The posed iciness that comes of this approach is formidable; it is Rossellini denying cinema’s penchant for easy empathy and illusion, and for the reduction of history to melodrama. “Louis XIV” might be the most realistic historical film ever made: the smells, dire hygiene, dull intervals, waiting, indulgent ritual, petty aristocratic decorum, horrifying lack of knowledge, etc. “History” can take on a gargantuan identity and weight if we let it; Rossellini is cutting it down to size, to just a litany of actions by ordinary, if nauseatingly privileged, men. Here, Versailles and the king’s surroundings are not costume-drama luxury, but a scalding statement all their own about class injustice and state power. In this sense, it forecasts the implicit howl of Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” even as it immolates the memory of Visconti’s “Ludwig,” also recently DVD-ed.

01202009_louisxiv2.jpgWhat it seems to me Rossellini discovered was the chilled, unpatronizing purity of Bresson, and how correctly it might be applied to history without glorifying it. This approach may arguably have met its Waterloo with the casting of Jean-Marie Patte, a rookie amateur, as Louis. Diminutive and robotic, Patte could not remember his lines, and so his dialogue is read from off-screen blackboards. This is a distracting fact once you’re aware of it, but it also gives the performance a spooky, no-eye-contact detachment that echoes the king’s in his scheming manipulation of other members of court. You could say the upshot is in some senses rather Ed Wood-esque (there’s a stilted, read-only eeriness to some of those performances that’s never been acknowledged), but it’s also quite Bressonian, a distancing, a winnowing away of the inessentials. It is, in any case, a far cry from Anna Magnani and the bad Italian post-dubbing of the middle century. The more exhausted we become with the uninflected ritual, and guileless delineation of rampaging guile, the more Rossellini’s point, about Louis and aristocracy but also about our own impatience with unglamorized historical knowledge, is proven.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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