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Revisiting Rossellini classics

What would lead Europe's most respected and influential filmmaker, who in the months after World War II invented a whole new way of looking at the world through the lens, to renounce film?

What would lead Europe's most respected and influential filmmaker, who in the months after World War II invented a whole new way of looking at the world through the lens, to renounce film?

The question stumped critics when Italian maestro Roberto Rossellini, whose War Trilogy (

Open City




Germany-Year Zero

) had electrified Europe in the 1940s and '50s, called a press conference in 1962 to declare, "Cinema is dead."

Rossellini said he was tired of the petty navel-gazing that defined contemporary European films.

He saw art not as a medium of self-expression, but a tool "to dispense knowledge and awareness" and thus combat the "cretinization of adults" accomplished by the mass media.

Rossellini called upon the artist's moral responsibility to illuminate the populace. "Only a moral position" could allow the artist to truly grasp reality, he said.

The then 56-year-old maverick came up with a solution that invited ridicule: to tell the history of Western culture with a series of TV movies. From 1962 to his death in 1977, he made 42 hours of historical TV movies and mini-series, including biopics about Socrates, St. Augustine and Christopher Columbus.

While this body of work is uneven, it has finally begun to be appreciated by critics.

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV

, from the Criterion Collection (


, $29.95, not rated), from 1966 is Rossellini's most accomplished didactic film.

The story opens in 1661, when the 22-year-old Louis, who has been king in name only since age 4, resolves to wrest power from the nobility.

Rossellini's thesis seems fanciful. But it is, for the most part, accurate: The young king was able to subjugate the nobility through fashion and architecture, and by encouraging them to cultivate decadence as a way of life.

Louis began donning absurdly expensive and audacious outfits in order to bankrupt the nobles who flocked to his court and who sought to outdo him. And he built them Versailles, a guilded cage where they became preoccupied by the pursuit of pleasure.

Rossellini hones his unique ability to capture abstract ideas in concrete images in the three films collected in Criterion's second new release, the box set

Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment



, $59.95, not rated).

The Age of the Medici

(1972) is a well-made, if not-so-exciting, 41/2-hour mini-series about the Italian Renaissance told through the eyes of two of the era's leading figures, banker Cosimo de' Medici and art theorist Leon Battista Alberti.

But the collection's real gems are the two philosophical biopics,


(1974) and

Blaise Pascal

(1972), which explore how 17th-century thinkers René Descartes and Blaise Pascal helped free reason from subservience to religious authority and tradition.

Rossellini's approach is refreshing: Rather than try to capture abstract ideas on film - a virtual impossibility - he focuses his lens on the concrete facts of his subjects' daily lives, their relationships with their families and friends, and their emotions. Rossellini firmly believed that "art can make you understand through emotion what you are absolutely incapable of grasping through intellect."

Fans interested in Rossellini's pre-1962 cinematic career will appreciate

Roberto Rossellini: Director's Series

from Lionsgate (


, $29.98, not rated), which features the DVD debut of two of the director's lesser-known films.

Dov'è la libertà . . .?

(Where Is Freedom?

), from 1954, is a pointed satire written as a vehicle for the celebrated comic actor, Totò. It's about a recently released convict who is so overwhelmed by freedom and by the outside world that he conspires to get sent back to prison.

Set in Nazi-occupied Italy, the moving drama,

Era notte a Roma


Escape by Night

), from 1960, tells the story of a beautiful black marketeer who reluctantly shelters three escaped prisoners of war - an American, a Russian and a Brit - in her small flat in Rome.

Other DVDs of Note

Vampire lovers will enjoy

Moonlight: The Complete Series

from Warner (, $39.98, not rated), a four-disc collection of the clever, romantic TV series about a P.I. who happens to be a vampire. The show was voted the 2008 People's Choice Award for Favorite New TV Drama, but it was sadly canceled by CBS after 16 episodes.

Pride and Glory

, which is due out Tuesday from Warner ($28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, rated R), is arguably one of the best police thrillers of the decade. A tense, violent meditation on police corruption and brutality, it features scorching performances by Edward Norton and Colin Farrell.

Fans of the 1980s classic sitcom


can relive the good old days with the 28-episode collection

Cheers: Season 11

, from CBS/Paramount (


, $42.99, not rated), which features the show's final season.