Arguably the least compelling of the many high-minded films produced and/or distributed under the American Film Theatre banner, this dull adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 play The Life of Galileo bombards the audience with eloquent scientific and theological debates without drawing viewers into the humanity of the story. It’s quite an accomplishment to make a bloodless film about a visionary who was persecuted as a heretic, but problems ranging from excessively arty cinematic flourishes to a overwrought leading performance consign Galileo to the realm of tedium almost from the first frames. Considering the damn thing runs 145 endless minutes, trying to find the redeeming values of Galileo is a chore, though such values do indeed exist. The film’s source material has an impressive history. After Brecht debuted his original German-language version, he collaborated with actor/director Charles Laughton on an English-language adaptation. The revered stage and film veteran Joseph Losey directed the first production of the English-language version, in 1947, and the play was revived in the 1950s before reaching the screen in 1974, again with Losey directing.
Set in the time of the Inquisition, Galileo tells the real-life story of Galileo Galilei, a mathematician and astronomer who clashed with the Catholic Church by using telescopes to prove Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. Rome persecuted Galileo because of the Catholic Church’s contention that man, made in God’s image, was the center of the universe. As Galileo unfolds, the conflict between the lead character and his religious opponents gets mired with socioeconomic issues, because Galileo needs patronage from the moneyed class in order to continue his endeavors, so the pressure to recant is powerful—even before agents of the Inquisition use torture to impose their will.
All of this should be fascinating stuff, representing the eternal war between doctrine and logic, but Losey makes one stylistic misstep after another. The casting of Israeli actor Topol is the worst of these errors, because as evidenced in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Topol’s forte is portraying simple men with powerful emotions. Not only is his accent distracting, considering that nearly every other actor in the film is British, but Topol is too primal a creature to seem believable as one of history’s great intellectuals. The performance isn’t bad, per se, but it’s wrong for the context. Further distancing the viewer from the story is Losey’s use of a Greek Chorus comprising several high-voiced boys, who appear onscreen periodically to sing about the plot. Music becomes even more intrusive later, when the movie stops dead for an extended musical number during which a theatrical company within the story summarizes Galileo’s crisis in song. Several fine actors—including Tom Conti, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Michael Gough, and Michael Lonsdale—enliven supporting roles, and the production is generally quite polished and professional. Nonetheless, the lack of a beating heart at the center of the drama is a nearly fatal flaw.