OVID.tv Presents: ALTHUSSER, AN INTELLECTUAL ADVENTURE – The Dramatic Life of a Visionary Man

This biographical film begins on a rooftop in Rome with an interview granted by Louis Althusser to Rai – Italian Television – in 1980. A big crew of journalists and cameramen surround a man in his 60s, who appears tired and looks a little sloppy. He keeps a low profile and seems clumsy in answering. 

How did you become a communist? asks the interviewer. Althusser’s head is buried in his hands as though he is protecting himself from the world, replying in understandable Italian, “I became a Communist because I was a Catholic.” He remained a Christian, by which he means universalist and internationalist, and he thought that the Communist Party had more adequate means for bringing about universal fraternity. He says he was also influenced by his wife Helène, who had a terrible time in the Resistance.

It’s a beautiful spring day, and the sky is clear. From the terrace we can enjoy a clear view of the Città Eterna’s monuments. Althusser and the interviewer have an informal and almost friendly chat. The interviewer talks and smiles, and the discussion appears to be on light topics, but actually it is the complete opposite.

A few months after this interview, Althusser, famous French Philosopher, Marxist and professor at Paris’s Ecole Normale Superiore, strangled his wife to death in a moment of insanity. It was a point when Communism was already in crisis. His days as a public figure are over.

Italian Director Bruno Oliviero emphasizes the title of this 2017 film in red, seeming to anticipate the story. We learn from the film that Louis Althusser’s intellectual adventure began at the end of the 50s after the release of the Khrushchev report, which revealed Stalin’s crimes. In a few years, the French Communist Party will reject the principle of dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Italian communists had already done.

OVID.tv’s ALTHUSSER, AN INTELLECTUAL ADVENTURE Describes the Enigmatic Figure of a Philosopher, Marxist, Professor, Murderer and Victim of Mental Illness

Yves Duroux and Etienne Balibar, former students of Althusser, are two Parisian guys now in their 80s, with pleasing faces and cool gestures. The interview appointment with the filmmaker is scheduled in a public place. It’s a secluded location where you can see the shop windows in the background.

Yves is hunched over and remembers, with some sadness, the first time he’d ever been in a psychiatric hospital in ’68. It was quite a shock to him. He remembers how the experience reminded him of Prisoner Exercising, the Van Gogh painting in which there are men in pajamas milling around.  Yves remembers meeting Althusser, who’d been hospitalized similarly in his pajamas, while receiving shock therapy.  While Yves is talking about electric shock treatments on his former professor, you can see Etienne, a big guy with a ruddy face and a lively look, dozing with arms folded.

Ideological apparatuses of the state. This is the concept Althusser we hear that he used to start a dialogue with youngsters who are starting to ignore him. 

“Ideology is eternal, like the unconscious. It imposes itself on people, even when they think they are free to choose." 

“It is ideology which forms individuals through the way in which the state’s ideological apparatuses shape our representations."

Etienne only jumps into this discussion at the mention of the murder of Althusser’s wife. He begins by saying that he never accepted it as an accidental occurrence, not believing that if Althusser strangled his wife, that it was by chance. He recounts how after Althusser’s hospitalization in a psychiatric facility, he began a very long and complicated process to determine what had happened to the both of them. Etienne talks about his experience quite clearly and with conviction, describing without using too many words: “The psychiatrists who attended Althusser came up with theories that have always stuck in my craw”, referring of the so-called altruistic suicide – a murder. With disappointment, he explains the difficulty of being surrounded by all these people whose theories became arguments for a political and personal trial. 

“There was a Sorbonne Professor who said to his students the day after the murder: 'I always told you it was a murderous philosophy. We shouldn’t be surprised that its originator is a murderer’.” 

Etienne admits that, at that moment, something broke. He realized there was something very strange, like a sort of liberation. Describing himself as Althusser’s faithful lieutenant, he’d been locked into a sort of mirror-image relationship with his professor. As the period just before had been very difficult to live for many reasons, he remembers thinking well, it’s over.

It’s a true confession as Etienne runs, step by step, through those tragic moments while speaking with his head down. Yves looks at him by listening in silence, showing a lot of emotion. 

Althusser’s own notes about his hospitalization records very well explain his moods in those years of suffering. Day by day, like a diary, he perfectly describes the waves of depression with a simple, almost childlike writing implement, coloring his moods in different colors. He also draws a long dark hallway that seems to a tunnel from which it is difficult to get out.  

The interview under the sky of Rome moves on. “When you play football, what happens?” Althusser responds, “There is no marketplace rapport, no political domination, no ideological intimidation. The teams playing each other respect the rules and respect each other. Communism is respect for human beings.” This is his idea about communism. He believes it also exists here, at this moment, on this terrace. Hic et Nunc. Here and now. He’s talking and leaning on the balustrade of the terrace, with a gaze towards the city skyline, like a dreamer. On his left, his everyday objects placed on the railing, a man-purse, and a pipe.

This meeting with the RAI crew is often intermixed with pictures and video reportages about popular pro-Communism demonstrations, which took place in Europe in the late 70s. Althusser’s tired look strikes the eye as he stares off into space. We see him with his students during Parisian protests holding the banner of Ecole Normale Superieure. From urban warfare to the fringe group Brigate Rosse that left a trail of death in Italy, it’s a roundup of exclusive images that shows with harshness, the truth of those years. You like this writer might find them difficult to see, and especially the images of Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead), when political terrorism from both right and left was frequent.

This film, Althusser, An Intellectual Adventure thus takes us on the intellectual journey of this Marxist philosopher. Credited with reinterpreting Marx, Althusser’s students— all very high-level scholars in their own right— were invited by Althusser to collaborate on his theories with the aim of safeguarding the revolutionary capacity of Marxism. The film also explores Althusser's little-understood struggles with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that would see him hospitalized numerous times. The memories, pietas, and the inner story-telling of his one-time collaborators make this film especially compelling, in this writer’s view. Viewers who like history films will likely especially appreciate the portrait of this leftist thinker.




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Chiara Berzieri

About the Author: Chiara Berzieri

Chiara Berzieri –brings a keen eye for detail and multi-lingual expertise to be the copy editor for Picture This Post European travel stories. She has a deep interest in architecture, photography and culture.

Born and raised in the sixties in Milan, the Fashion City, Chiara moved to Varese, 40 km north, near Switzerland, famous for its Italian Liberty Style and for its stunning position around the Italian Lake District, one of the most beautiful environmental areas of Europe.  After graduating in Varese, she worked for many years for Attorney at Law firms. In 2005, Chiara moved to Modena, the City of Pavarotti and car makers as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati.

2009 was the year that Chiara discovered Umbria – the green heart of Italy – by chance, touring the country by car. She says, “I found in the green landscapes of Valdichiana the authenticity of its welcoming people. In 2010 I bought a 19th century building, totally abandoned, Podere Molinaccio, and started the renovation and modernization work with great satisfaction. Today I’m an enthusiastic, curious and happy host at Podere Molinaccio of people from all over the world!"

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6 thoughts on “OVID.tv Presents: ALTHUSSER, AN INTELLECTUAL ADVENTURE – The Dramatic Life of a Visionary Man

  1. Thank you for your vivid description of what gave this film its character despite the rather heavy subject matter

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