Movie Review - Galileo (1975)



Galileo (1975)

Life of Galileo was a play by Bertolt Brecht written in 1938 that was converted into a movie Galileo in 1975 by the American Film Theatre. The movie is a biographical account of Galileo’s life and his greatest discoveries. Looking at Galileo’s paper A Sidereal Message, we can see the similarities between the way the observations are detailed and the way the movie says they were made. The science seems to have been mostly correctly depicted in the movie, but that’s not really what it’s about.

This movie is about the conflict of religious belief and scientific evidence over the years, and about the importance of standing true to one’s beliefs and not giving in to coercion.

Brecht, the writer of the story, depicts Galileo as a coward who gave into the Church’s threats and recanted despite knowing that he was willingly saying that the truth is a lie. Galileo himself, at the end of the movie, in a moving monologue says that he stepped back where he should have stood firm. As a direct result, a large amount of scientific research across Europe stopped including Descartes who had been about to publish his Treatise of the World. He says that he betrayed his calling by surrendering his knowledge to the hands of the Church, and that science has no place in his ranks for a traitor like him.

As far as historical context goes, several liberties have been taken with Galileo’s personal life. The most significant of these is the role of his daughter, Virginia, who instead of having her marriage cancelled due to Galileo’s work, was actually sent to a convent to be a nun at the age of 13. She stayed there throughout the period of the play, and died of dysentery shortly after Galileo recanted. This could be taken as another instance of how Brecht attempted to villainise Galileo by making it seem like he ruined his daughter’s life.

Brecht also makes several other pertinent points, such as the idolisation that Galileo is subject to, as seen when Andrea on seeing a new book by him, immediately takes back all his criticism and accusations and starts ascribing great ethics to him.

The depiction of religion as a belief system that cannot allow anything to counter its beliefs is also important. In an important song in the second half of the movie, we are told how Galileo and other scientists, who operate on the basis of doubt, have affected the common mind. The peasants and manufacturers start to doubt the landlords and even the priests, which lessens the power of the Church as a result. This idea of doubt being propagated by a man who even then was seen as Italy’s premier scientist was a major reason for the punishment that Galileo was subject to.

The cinematography and drama in the movie are also hallmarks of good theatre, with a very interesting scene of how Galileo’s disciples and his daughter are waiting to see if he will recant his work. With shadows playing on white backgrounds, the daughter prays for his ‘salvation’ while Andrea standing in front of her talks about the truths that they have observed. That to me, really symbolises the religion vs science discourse throughout the movie.

As a whole, Galileo is an interesting film, but that is only because the original play was interesting. It in fact loses a lot of the effect that Brecht’s original screenplay would have added, due to the change in medium.

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