The adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” directed by Joseph Losey is one of the more cinematic of the series of major 20th-century plays filmed in the mid 1970s as the American Film Theater. In that Losey directed a staging of the play in 1944 while Brecht was in exile in Los Angeles (translated by and starring Charles Laughton), it has a special importance as a Brecht document. As a recurrent alienation device it has an annoyingly off-key and poorly articulating trio of boy sopranos introducing most scenes. Sometimes there scene setting is supplemented by showing the text on top of the picture.
There is also a lengthy sung burlesque of the story with an effigy of Topol (I mean of Galileo). Although these two devices break up the biographical story, it is shown in chronological order (i.e., without flashbacks) and mostly looks like a conventional low-budget biopic, albeit about a selfish, cowardly “great man.” When Andrea, a disillusioned former assistant played by Tom Conti, tells the scientist who recanted what he knew to be true at the prospect of torture by the Office of the “Holy” Inquisition that his followers hoped he would be a hero, and sighs, “”Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” Galileo responds: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”
(Brecht himself was unheroic, slithered through one inquisition (HUAC) after writing the play, and failed to side with the workers in a 1953 revolt that was crushed in East Germany, where he was a major cultural personage supported by the Stalinist regime. He could have pointed back at this play as fair warning of what he would do, even recognizing, as his Galileo does in retrospect, that he was too prominent to be tortured and caved in not under torture but at the mere thought of physical pain after being showed the machines of torture.)
Brecht’s Galileo as played by Topol (with all his “Fiddler on the Roof” baggage) is a sly opportunist eager to sell out, unconcerned about ruining the life (specifically marriage prospects) of his daughter, but with a curiosity that he indulges as he indulges in good food and fine wine (but not lechery, one of the forms of bribery the Holy Mother Church offers him in exchange for not pushing the Copernican doctrine that became a heresy that the earth revolved around the run, augmented by his own discovery through the new-fangled technology of a telescope of “the Medici stars” that are moons revolving around the planet Jupiter).
Topol is good at cunning and handles the aging thirty-plus years convincingly with a minimum of special make-up (he discusses this in a 2003 interview included on the DVD). He is a Brechtian scoundrel who is far from lovable (and, fortunately, is not one of those who sing in the movie!). He is a secular monster too greedy to stay out of the reach of Rome (orthodoxy was less easily enforced in the Republic of Venice, but early on, he moves from the University of Padua to Medici sponsorship in the University of Florence, and does not flee when help is offered by the rising merchant class).
For drama (epic or realistic), there needs to be a worthy opponent. Brecht and/or history supplied none. John Gielgud’s aged cardinal splutters through one scene (he was on hand for one day of shooting). Patrick Magee’s Cardinal Bellarmin is chilling enough, but there is no development of his character in general or in relationship to suppressing Copernican heresy in particular. Edward Fox’s Grand Inquisitor also is a shadow who has no confrontation onscreen with Galileo (though he intimidates Michael Lonsdale, as Cardinal Barberini, later elevated to the Throne of St. Peter as Pope Urban VIII, is not a villain at all. He knows that Galileo is right and limits what the Office of the Holy Inquisition can do in breaking him. Galileo’s wife, daughter, and rich student (also prospective son-in-law, ably played by Tim Woodward) want him to go along to get along.
The horrors of the Inquisition methods was not necessary in the case of Galileo Galilei. Years later, he recognized he had a unique opportunity: “In my days astronomy reached the marketplaces. In these quite exceptional circumstances, the steadfastness of one man could have shaken the world. . . . I am not convinced that I was never in real danger. For a few years I was as strong as the authorities, And I surrendered my knowledge to those in power, to use, or not to use, or to misuse, just as suited their purposes. I have betrayed my profession. A man who does what I have done cannot be tolerated in the ranks of science.” Andrea is not convinced by this self-flagellation as he carries off the manuscript Galileo has hidden (the Discorsi that was then published in the Netherlands). Losey dropped Brecht’s sardonic final scene of Andrea crossing the border, though generally adhering to the text.
There are multiple sets (unlike most of the other AFT productions). There’s some but not much camera fluidity, but there are not static proscenium-like scenes. Galileo’s asides are in close-up.
The DVD has a 20-minute interview with Topol, a faded theatrical trailer, and four essays that may be scrolled through. The image transfer is excellent. The sound transfer is not, though perhaps the problems are the original filmings (particularly the choirboys’ articulation) rather than audio transfer ones. The lack of development of other characters derives from Brecht, the unwillingness to excise more Losey’s.
Both Brecht and Losey believed that undercutting the belief in the stability of the universe revolving around the earth led directly to destabilizing belief in the “natural” order of social inequality, a correlation the accuracy of which I am less convinced than were they. Brecht’s view (expressed in notes on the play) is that “by discrediting the Bible and the Church, these sciences stood for a while at the barricades on behalf of all progress” and that “the new astronomy gave impetus to the revolutionary social current of the time.” Given the situation of Galileo, Brecht concluded that “one can scarcely wish only to praise or only to condemn Galileo” and contended that his play was neither tragic nor optimistic. This ambivalence seems to me preserved in Losey’s filming. And Topol’s characterization seems to fulfill Brecht’s aim “not at establishing the sympathetic identificaiton and participation of the audience with him [Galileo]; rather, the audience should be helped to achieve a more considering, critical and apraising attitude. He should be presented as a phenomenon, rather like Richard III, whereby the audience’s emotional acceptance is gained through the viatlity of this alien maniefestation,” giving free rein to humor.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray