American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The recent program on Galileo in J. Bronowski's Ascent of Man public TV series served as a reminder that Brecht's "Galileo" bears only a sporadic resemblance to the facts of the great man's life. But no matter: What Brecht was after, and what the new American Film Theater version of his play does a pretty good job of delivering, was a drama of ideas, not biography.
"Galileo" as directed by Joseph Losey (who directed its first U.S. stage version in 1947) is a film to think about. It doesn't take an important life and reduce it to domestic crisis and costume drama ("A Man for All Seasons") or pop simplification ('The Agony and the Ecstasy"), but deals with it on the planes that made it important. Losey is at the same time generally faithful to the specifically Brechtian nature of the play. His film, and Brecht would have approved, keeps us at a certain distance and reminds us occasionally that we're watching artifice. The content, not the craftsmanship, becomes the point.
The film begins in 1609, when Galileo is an ill paid mathematics professor in Padua, but has the freedom to continue his scientific inquiries under the protection of the Venetian republic. It presents his sensational, if ingenuous, introduction of a new scientific toy from Holland, the telescope. It follows him as he turns from the telescope's more immediately practical uses to its scientific implications as a means of testing Copernicus' heretical theory that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system.
And it shows him making a series of tactical errors based on his own mistaken belief that he had strong supporters within the church that would lead to his silencing and ruin. His first mistake is to take a better position withmore prestige in Florence where he was without Venetian protection and open to the threat of the Inquisition. His second was to believe that his highly placed church friends, including the intellectual Cardinal Barberini, would agree with him that truth was an adequate refutation of erroneous dogma.