I have Amazon Prime, which supplies free two-day shipping on all orders, regardless of size, and I use the hell out of it for everything from food to appliances to books to computers to musical instruments to tools. Rather remarkably, it also includes access to 10,000 movies which can be streamed free of charge. (You can even download them for two days at a time, in case you don't have access to Wifi when traveling. Sort of like checking something out from the library.)

So last night was movie night at my abode. They didn't have my favorite Rocky XXII or Diehard-Part 117, so instead I was stuck with watching Galileo. This is a film version of the Bertolt Brecht piece, and it doesn't disappoint.

I had seen the play performed at the local university almost a decade ago and quite enjoyed it. In fact, I got my school to put up the money so that all of my students could attend. Brecht, I need hardly add, took an unconventional approach to "reality" in theater, and the subject of Galileo was ideal for that.

The movie, made in 1975, stays very true to Brecht's attack. In fact, it was directed by Joseph Losey who not only studied and collaborated with Brecht in Germany, but also was the man to bring Galileo to Broadway in 1947, with Charles Laughton in the lead. It closed after six performances, suggesting that Americans were not quite ready for Brecht yet. Incidentally, Laughton was the translator for the English language version.

The film rendition is absolutely splendid, and filled with actors you simply wouldn't believe. Let me mention just a few, along with other shows I've seen them in that you'll no doubt recognize.
  • Topol, (Fiddler on the Roof, For Your Eyes Only)
  • Edward Fox, (Force 10 from Navarone)
  • Patrick Magee, (Clockwork Orange, Marat/Sade)
  • Michael Lonsdale, (Day of the Jackal, Moonraker)
  • Georgia Brown, (The 7 Percent Solution, A Study in Terror)
  • John Gielgud, (Brideshead Revisited and a million other things)
  • Michael Gough, (Alice in Wonderland, Batman)
  • Vernon Dobtcheff, (The Spy Who Loved Me, Lillie)
  • Colin Blakely, (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes)
  • Peggy Thorpe-Bates, (Rumpole of the Bailey)
  • Judy Parfitt, (Hamlet)
  • Tom Conti, (Shirley Valentine, The Glittering Prizes)
  • Paul Curran, (Poldark)
And a ton of other great British actors. Notably, they all agreed to act in the movie for minimum wage, simply because they believed in what it stood for.

The story is fairly well-known, of course. See my further comments in Quotation Marks Are Not Saran Wrap. What makes Brecht's take so unusual is that he deliberately tried to make Galileo an unsympathetic character: egotistical, at times cowardly and certainly not averse to chicanery when seeking public approbation. Indeed, I suspect Galileo probably really was like that. However, the greatness of what he accomplished and his genuine love of truth renders those minor quirks.

Rather interesting is that Topol, playing the lead, makes you root for the man, which is apparently not what Brecht intended. I'm sure Brecht would have never anticipated our era in which fans at a pro wrestling card more often than not cheer for the heel, not the baby-face.

It's great acting throughout, indeed it's spectacular. One thing I marvel at is that both Lonsdale and Dobtcheff are perfectly bilingual in French and English. When speaking one language you never hear the accent of the other, and I have heard them in both tongues. They each have acted in many films from both sides of the Channel.

The film really engages, even though it assumes the viewer is literate, which usually pips such projects at the post. Neither Brecht nor Losey nor Topol treat the viewer like an idiot. Anyone with an ounce of sense will come away realizing that the institution Galileo was up against is hands-down the most malevolent invention humankind has ever concocted. Hence the casting, I'm sure. For example, the phenomenal Patrick Magee playing Cardinal Bellarmine, had already mastered his chops by winning the Tony award for his portrayal of the Marquis de Sade. The poor guy was almost typecast!

In hopes of enticing you to watch it, I took some dictation of just one of the magnificent scenes. Sagredo has just realized what Galileo's discoveries entail. He wonders what impact this might have:
Sagredo: Where is God?

Galileo: Where is he? I'm a mathematician, not a theologian.

S: (emphatically), But where is he?

G: Not out there (pointing to the sky) any more than he'd be down here. Inside us or nowhere.

S: Ten years ago a man was burned at the stake for saying that.

G: Giordano Bruno spoke too soon; he'd never have been burned if he backed up what he said with proof.

S: Do you really believe that proof makes any difference?

G: All the difference in the world. I believe in man, and that means I believe in reason. Without that belief I wouldn't have the strength to get out of bed in the morning.
Oh my...the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That was over 400 years ago, and the Catholic Church hasn't changed one whit. It boggles me no one notices, but then the wooly mammoth probably took no note of the glacier moving one centimeter per year.

It's a great film and a great story. I hope you'll be encouraged by my meager words to look up a real gem by the great Bertolt Brecht and see some of the finest actors ever bring life to his words.

As a bit of a postscript, by a curious coincidence, I read in the paper today that the Pope has authorized a commission to study whether women could be permitted as deacons. Whoa! Katie bar the door! Such liberalism! What's next? Prophylactics?

Oops! A daydream intrudes. I just visualized a cadre of cardinals in full red regalia, silken caps, expensive chains round the necks, still reeking of cheap incense even a hippy girl would have eschewed in 1969, infiltrating the manufacturer of Trojan-Enz, then knocking out the workers at the conveyor belt (presumably with their heavy silver crucifices) and taking their places surreptitiously, pulling out their secreted darning needles and poking holes in each latex contrivance as it comes down the line, malevolently cackling and winking to each other: "That'll teach 'em!"

But I digress. Note that the Pope isn't actually proposing women deacons, merely a commission to "study" the possibility. Reminds me of the college I once attempted to teach at; holding innumerable meetings to discuss work was far preferable to actually doing work.

When I read the breathtaking news of these Catholic meetings on the forefront, I immediately thought of the times Galileo was born into: the Council of Trent. (If your Church history is a bit rusty, this was the 1650's version of Target launching a price war to lure shoppers from Wal-Mart; that upstart Luther was offering way too many discounts, double coupons, and a far too lenient return-policy.)

The Council of Trent, which dragged on for two decades, spent the first half of those years meeting to determine how they would meet. Ten years to set a goddamn agenda! Nothing changes, does it?

And now we have our current infallible chap arranging to arrange a new meeting which will arrange to arrange another meeting. And so on, until those uppity women get off their hobby-horses and let the he-men get on with their "work."

Let's face it, as Galileo so correctly noted: in the Catholic Church, a syllogism consists of the conclusion only. We don't need no stinking premises! Sagredo was right.

Next installment: Females Are Nuts

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