Can you, or how do you, portray the action of philosophical learning on film? Well, I’m not saying that this 1971 film Socrates I ran across the other day succeeds at that, but the next time you’re reading a Platonic dialog featuring philosophy’s first hero you really ought to give it a look.
Some of you may be aware of another film, an old Britannica-sponsored thirty-minute one sometimes found in American school libraries, titled The Trial of Socrates. I first came across it as a student teacher in the early 90s, when assigned to observe a teacher at a pretty-tough inner-city high school. I have a fond but faint memory of this teacher discussing it with his students, two or three of whom were guys that were clearly, er… “at risk” of joining a gang if they hadn’t already. For that day, though, they were drawn into the story Socrates and his fate. Because while it feels stiff at first, the film is pretty well done–a useful supplement to reading the Apology.
Anyhow, when searching for it recently due to reading the Gorgias with some students, I stumbled across the full-length Italian film from the early 1960s that this post is really about. It’s by Roberto Rossellini, an important director of the Italian neorealist movement, who also became famous for his love life (adulteries that led to marriages with Ingrid Bergman and then with an Indian screenwriter), and who late in life showed a definite Roman Catholic bent in his choice of subjects, including television films about Augustine, the book of Acts, and even Blaise Pascal. I haven’t gotten to those yet, but this film is an Italian-Spanish collaboration with a pretty big cast. The link is above, and don’t forget to use youtube’s subtitles button, if they don’t pop up automatically.
Like the Britannica film, it also deals with the trial and death scenes in its culmination, but it gives us a much larger slice of Socrates’s life during his last year. The resource-limited but blessed-by-the-Mediterranean-sunlight presentation of “Athens in the outdoors” is convincing enough, and great care is taken to convey the specific historical situation—the plot involves the Spartan-backed tyranny of The Thirty ruling over a defeated Athens after the Peloponessian War, and one scene conveys how Socrates refused to agree to arrest a man in their name, which the film suggests would likely have resulted in his death had they not been overthrown shortly thereafter.
For Plato (and Xenophon) readers, the film gives us a plausible view of what Socrates and his main activity in Athens, conversing-in-the-forum with nearly anyone, or more privately with his disciples, looked like. No, Socrates is not presented as having a basically ugly-looking face, which the ancient accounts generally agree upon, but that’s probably best for a film. What astounded me was the screenwriters’ inserting various summary-of-the-argument exchanges from several Platonic dialogues, including lesser-known ones like the Greater Hippias, into the flow of the already quite talk-y action. This pretty much works!
Well, it worked for me, but it probably wouldn’t for a viewer unfamiliar with Plato’s works, and certainly wouldn’t for anyone made impatient by dialogue-packed films.
There haven’t been many attempts to capture Socrates on film, and most of these have been amateur and overly arty affairs. They always either focus on the trial/death of Socrates or upon the Symposium. Besides a Death of Socrates unworthy of further mention, there’s a 60s version of the The Symposium presented as a British dinner-party that falls totally flat, and two very recent attempts by an LA-based Slovenian visual artist named Natasa Porsenc Stearns, The Trial of Socrates and The Symposium, which I haven’t been able to see. The trailer for the former makes it look like a postmodernist mess involving a bunch of young directors, and the IMDb notes for the latter shows that it omits key characters like Agathon and Pausanias, and throws in new ones like “Socrates’s grand-daughter.” I wouldn’t seek these out, but still, it’s heartening that this Slovenian surprised at how little her American friends knew about philosophy was able get enough of her art/film peers interested to get these projects off the ground.
Socratic dialectic probably works better in theater than in cinema—nearly a decade ago there was a play by professor Andrew Irvine that used Aristophanes’s The Clouds as a kind of Act One to key bits from Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. From the trailer it looks like it work all right with better casting.
But maybe those dialectics are impossible as drama. Maybe what we really need is for some animator to put the more visual aspects of Platonic writing on screen. Something like “The Twenty-Nine Most Mind-Bending Images from Plato’s Republic,” pitched as a hippie or art-freak film.
But the thing I like most of all about Rossellini’s film is that it puts classical Athens on the screen. And that could be a new field for filmmakers to mine in our day. Why haven’t we seen them run with screenplays about, say, Alcibiades, Xenophon, Aspasia, or Dion? All of these are characters who momentarily step into philosophic and/or artistic circles, but who are involved in political doings, often with adventures, love-affairs, and battles. Yes, the way women were so cloistered in Athens poses barriers to contemporary taste, as does the casual acceptance of slavery. Yes, the political minefields that come with any portrayal of Athenian pederasty would have to be negotiated. But none of these things have to be central to the stories that are waiting to be told, and they are probably more able to be dealt with today than previously anyhow.
Socrates Seeking Alcibiades at the House of Aspasia, Jean-Leon Gerome
Such dramatic possibilities remind me that a key teacher of mine, political philosophy professor Mary Nichols, who taught me some of what I know about Socrates, and much of what I know about interpreting film, once was talking of writing a screenplay centered on Alcibiades and Socrates, and then sending it to Kenneth Branagh. I have no idea if she got anywhere with that, and I hope I’m not revealing big trade secrets here, but her idea points to the sorts of interesting things that could be done with classical material on Athens. As peoples across the globe enter a period of diminished confidence in modern democracy, looking at the career of the Athenian democracy could be a useful exercise.
Nichols, incidentally, has a new book out about Thucydides, the key historian of most of the period in which Socrates lived. She has a delightful podcast over at Library of Law and Liberty, where her conservation analyzes the Athenian idea of liberty and defends—from the critical likes of Plato’s Socrates, among others–the leadership of Pericles. Without having read it yet, I can assure any of our readers unfamiliar with classical Greek topics that an accessible–yet appropriately rigorous–way into that world would be to tackle Thucydides with Nichols’s book at hand.
But of course those of you who know, knew that I had to end with this, the most stirring cinematic portrayal yet of philosophy in action, and, of Socrates using his head: