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cast: Topol, Tom Conti, John Gielgud, Edward Fox, and Patrick Magee

director: Josepg Losey

139 minutes (PG) 1974
Fremantle inD DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Tom Matic
Joseph Losey's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's play Life Of Galileo is perhaps an unusual addition to the American Film Theatre's canon, much of which is drawn from the naturalistic tradition the German dramatist criticised as 'bourgeois theatre'. The plays of Eugene O'Neill, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee feature prominently in the AFT's repertoire, as can be seen from the many trailers among the special features on this DVD, which also includes an interview with Topol. Even Jean Genet's The Maids, for all its intense and florid language, takes place in a single room and in what approximates to real time, unlike the sweeping, picaresque narrative of Brecht's 'epic theatre'. Brecht rejected the traditional Aristotelian theatrical aesthetics imposing unity of place and time, which prescribed that plays had to take place in a single location in real time. However, like the O'Neill, Pinter and Albee plays, Galileo is an ensemble piece, and this, as well as Brecht's theatrical devices, makes it very suitable for cinematic treatment in many ways. Whether this adaptation exploits this potential to the full is another matter.

As an ensemble piece, the film is well served by the cast, many of whom were stalwarts of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The only exception to this is Topol in the title role, perhaps cast as a bankable Hollywood star to make the film more acceptable to the US cinema-going public. Nevertheless, he makes the role his own, from the opening scenes as an energetic young scientist bristling with enthusiasm to his final years as a jaded and disappointed old man. Brecht put quite a bit of himself into the part of Galileo, notably his belief in "food first then philosophy." Someone remarks that Galileo approaches thinking as a sensual activity, and he agrees that he gets his best ideas after eating.

However Brecht's main contention in the play is that Galileo's ideas were explosive, not merely because they overturned hitherto accepted assumptions about the place of the world, and therefore humanity itself, in the universe. Not only had Galileo turned the cosmos on its head, but had created a climate where hierarchies of all kinds could be challenged and subverted, at a time when authority both spiritual and temporal was already facing religious schisms and peasant uprisings throughout Europe. Brecht's Galileo endorses this duality of the 'world turned upside down', that is, until the Inquisition threatens his own skin: being a worldly, sensual man, with a low pain threshold, he cannot stand up to torture.

This is one of the most effective scenes in the film, in which Brecht's associates wait for him, naively expecting to stick to his guns and refuse to recant. The theatrically bright lighting, casting livid shadows onto a stark white backdrop heightens the dramatic irony of this scene. Losey excels at tableaux like this, but apart from this scene the cinematic language he uses rather mutes the effects of Brecht's celebrated theatrical techniques. Where Brecht's plays had deliberately jarring banners declaring the action of each scene, the film uses subtitles, an accepted technique used by drama documentary to maintain the illusion of verisimilitude (not as Brecht would have it, to shatter that illusion).

It may be objected that Gillo Pontecorvo used precisely that technique (subtitles) to almost Brechtian effect in The Battle Of Algiers, but that film was far more raw and confrontational in tone, dealing with contemporary events, like a revolutionary newsreel. Losey's Galileo has none of that film's frenetic energy, and seems almost sedate and conservative in demeanour. Even the choirboys whose mocking asides punctuate each scene seem restrained, their commentary gently sardonic rather than vitriolic (it's almost conceivable that the low-angled close-ups of their falsetto close-harmonies are the inspiration for Queen's "Galileo! Galileo!" on their Bohemian Rhapsody video). On only one occasion do the boys run riot: during the scene that most effectively encapsulates Brecht's carnivalesque vision of the 'world turned upside down', where revolting peasants cavort uproariously to Hans Eisler's seductive setting of the deliciously anarchic refrain: "How nice it is to do exactly as one pleases!"

This scene aside, the Brecht presented in this play is rather too much the cool scientific observer of historical motions, with too little of his roughness and bawdiness. However, if you want more of these, you might be well advised to seek out the film of a play not by Brecht himself, but certainly written on firmly Brechtian principles: Peter Weiss' The Persecution And Assassination Of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of The Asylum Of Charenton Under The Direction Of The Marquis De Sade ('The Marat/Sade' for short), filmed by Peter Brook in 1966 from his own RSC stage production.

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