(Italian c 120’)
En: 8 Ed: 9
Directed by Roberto Rosselini, after the defeat of Athens by Sparta, the life of Socrates is threatened by false charges made against him.
In 404 BC the Spartan leader Lysander has commanded that in accordance with the terms of the surrender by Athens its walls are now to be destroyed. The Spartan officer orders the walls demolished. Men put a battering ram to work as others watch. They open a hole, and some Athenians cover their faces.
In Athens a few soldiers walk. A citizen goes inside the house of Theophrastus during a banquet, and they discuss how Alcibiades affected the war. They agree that his Sicilian expedition was a disaster, but some argue that he could have given them victory late in the war. Theophrastus says the Athenians were outsmarted by the Spartans and had no choice but to surrender. An older man says the young no longer understand virtue. Theophrastus wonders how they will be treated by the Thirty Tyrants imposed on them, and he hopes that exiled Alcibiades will free them. They note that Critias is one of the Thirty and that Alcibiades and he were students of Socrates. A messenger arrives, and the banquet breaks up.
Three men go to another house where they are welcomed and told that lunch will soon be served. A messenger tells them about the demolition of the walls. They discuss how their city has had many spies. Some believe that envy of Athens motivated their enemies. One man says Thebans were dissuaded from making Athenians slaves after they heard the poetry of Euripides. The host orders a woman to serve the lunch.
In the city people learn that they are distributing food. Socrates (Jean Sylvere) admits that he has a large stomach. He says the only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance. He says people have many different opinions; some are proud while others are weak. He tells Crito (Ricardo Palacios) that they should respect the opinions of others even though they disagree with them. Socrates says he only cares about agreeing with himself and not doing anything opposed to that. A man asks him what he knows that others don’t. Socrates replies that he knows that he knows nothing. A man accuses him of wanting to change the world by splitting hairs as Socrates and his friends walk away.
Hermes tells Meletus (Emilio Miguel Hernandez) that Athenians are not lovers of truth. Meletus says that Socrates was a soldier and is an exemplary citizen, but he has become very proud. He disagreed with them on the case against the generals who had denied 2,000 soldiers proper burials because he wanted them tried in a new way. People were upset about their dead relatives, and Meletus suggests that they resent Socrates. He wonders what the young see in him. Alcibiades was one of his favorite students, and Hermes says he caused their defeat. Meletus asks what the tyrant Critias will do because he was a student of Socrates too. Hermes warns him not to talk about it.
Socrates and his friends walk in the marketplace, and Socrates buys an octopus for food. Another buys bread and greens and hands them to Socrates as they say goodbye. One man goes with Socrates to his house. Socrates shows the food to his wife Xantippe (Anna Caprile). She complains she has been anxious and alone for two days. She scolds him for talking to his friends while Athens is defeated. She urges him to work for his family, but he does not even receive money for teaching. She throws the food on the floor and starts crying. She embraces Socrates who says that he knew her thunder would end in rain. She warns him that hatred is everywhere and that he should be careful.
Socrates, Crito, and about ten others walk and see many men tied to pillars as torture. A disciple asks Socrates what they can do since no one is allowed to help them. He says the Tyrants have tortured 1,500 Athenians, and no one has rebelled. He says that Critias, his former student, is one of the worst. Socrates says that if a shepherd kills half his sheep and lets the others starve, he cannot claim that he is a good shepherd. They kill and yet believe they are good magistrates. A student says Alcibiades and Critias left Socrates and turned into criminals. He prays that this won’t cause Socrates to leave them. Socrates prays for a favorable destiny on the path of good and for divine breath to fill their sails so that they may reach their goal. Socrates says that Alcibiades and Critias did not silence themselves to hear the inspiration of the gods. Socrates says that medicine cures the body and that politics should guide the soul. It should not be the art of domination but should show them what is just.
They walk to a stream and sit under a tree. A student says that the tyrants are not mad but are criminals. Socrates replies there is no difference. He reminds them of a song which says the best things are health, beauty, and riches, but he says the greatest happiness is justice. Those who commit evil actions are insane. A student says they profit by this madness, but Socrates asks him what this profit is. If it is riches and power, what happens when they lose them. Then the memory of their crimes makes them insane. Their ignorance was hidden from them by their power, but the reason for their crimes is their ignorance of what is good. People use power to hide their weakness and their fear. They think they are surrounded by enemies, and he asks if this is not madness. He suggests they ignore them. The student says a tyrant can force a city to do what he wants. Socrates replies that the unjust harm themselves first. The student says that virtue comes from the knowledge of the good, and Socrates says the knowledge and practice. The student says that then the powerful man must be virtuous to rule a city well. Socrates says a virtuous man will be an example for all. States do not need arsenals and armies to survive but virtue. If they have virtue, their citizens will die to defend them.
Xantippe arrives and says she has been looking for him for two hours. She berates him for making useless pronouncements. She says that Critias has summoned him to the Tholos. He tells her not to worry, but she replies that he talks while others act.
In the Tholos building Callicles (Roman Ariznavarreta) tells Socrates that he has been accused of violating the laws, but Socrates says he is committed to obeying the laws. He defends what they call his oratorical cavils as his search for the truth. He says he does not search for the truth to get power over other men. If he did, he would agree with their prohibition. He obliges others to think, and he hopes their discussions gives them a clearer understanding. The man says they are giving him a clear order, not to talk to young men. He asks which men he must avoid in conversation. Callicles says those who are not yet thirty. Socrates asks what if he is buying something from a young man. Callicles warns him not to toy with them and says he understands what they mean. Socrates asks if he is not to discuss justice, and Callicles warns him to respect the shepherds if he wants the sheep to prosper. Callicles sits down, and Meletus and three other men arrive and stand by Socrates. An official orders these citizens to arrest Cleone because he has been sentenced to death. This will prove their loyalty to Athens and its new government. The five men leave the building. One man tells Socrates that he regrets having admired Critias because now he hates the tyrants. Socrates says this man will obey them nonetheless; but he does not hate them and will not obey them, and he is going home. The man says Socrates is insane. Socrates replies that sometimes one must know when to be insane, and he walks away. The other four go to make the arrest.
At night three Athenians plan an act of rebellion. They hear a signal and draw their swords and sneak forward. Other rebels attack guards and replace them. Then they signal others, and many more come.
The next day Crito and others are discussing the battle for the Piraeus in which Critias died. Thrasybulus is the new hero. They captured a fort at night. They believe that the Spartans cannot hold Athens for long and that Lysander understands that and withdrew his men. They believe this saved the life of Socrates because Critias would have sentenced him to death.
An Athenian soldier announces to the people gathered that Athens has been liberated from the tyrants, and its democratic constitution has been restored. They will make sure that Athenians obey all their laws. To celebrate their new freedoms they grant everyone amnesty. People applaud. Those who served the tyrants have been exiled so that no blood will be shed.
An old man tells a boy that they are going to the Prytaneum where the Prytanes are elected from the various tribes or demes of Athens. Some of the officials are chosen by lottery, and every citizen has a chance to be in the highest offices. They believe that it would be dangerous to entrust power in one man. The boy asks if he could be elected someday, and the old man says he could if he is lucky. If he proves his valor, he may be inducted into the Prytaneum in his old age and would have no other responsibility but instructing the people how to respect their traditions.
Citizens gather and cast their ballots in an urn. A boy is blindfolded and draws out a ballot, and a man reads the name. The man draws a bean from another urn which is white, meaning that the gods approve. Another man draws a black bean and is rejected.
Outside a poet recites and plays a lyre, warning about the danger of one man ruling the city. Socrates and his friends walk by. A man asks him if he knows Aristophanes. His friends try to grab the man, but Socrates stops them. The man recites from the play The Clouds which satirizes Socrates for denying the power of Zeus over storms. He asks Socrates to give him his money back and asks if the rain is caused by the clouds. Then he asks for only the interest on the money. He accuses Socrates of blasphemy and walks off. Socrates laughs and says this “Socrates” does not exist. A man says that Socrates is a teacher of virtue, but Socrates says no; rather he is a midwife like his mother. Instead of helping new babies into the world, he practices the art known to a few gods. He simply trusts his inner voice. The man says the Athenians are suffering because of blabbermouths like him. The man walks away.
Near woods Socrates tells his students that looking directly at the sun can cause blindness. One must study its reflections in water. The soul may become blind if it searches for the truth too directly; it must take refuge by using reason. A man asks how he avoids starving when he cannot even hire a servant. Socrates replies that he has learned how to live on the bare minimum. Because he is content with little he remains close to the gods. The man says he is fortunate because he needs everything all the time. He believes that without money people are worthless in the eyes of the gods. Socrates says the gods prefer a poor and virtuous man to a rich and dishonest one. Socrates sits on a bench, and five students sit on marble floor. One says this would make him a paragon of virtue because his students don’t even pay him. One man suggests the Spartans pay Socrates who restrains his students from harming the man. Socrates affirms that he is as loyal to his country as anyone. Meletus says that Alcibiades caused their defeat by mutilating the statues of Hermes in violation of their traditions. Another asks about Critias who believed that politicians created the gods. A third man asks about his pupil Plato who argues that cities should be governed by philosophers, or they will go from bad to worse. Socrates says the ignorant laugh at them, and he asks the man who he thinks should govern the state. The man says the citizens. Socrates asks if the leaders are chosen by lottery, and the man agrees. Socrates asks if it is not difficult to manage the state, and the man says yes. Socrates asks if he went on a sea voyage, would he choose a captain at random. The man says no. Socrates asks about other professionals, and the answer is the same. Yet politics is the most difficult science, and so the man contradicts himself. The man asks why Socrates has not become a politician. He replies that he learned during the trial of the generals that he must fight for justice in private life. He can be more useful teaching the proper politics to many citizens if he does not practice it himself. Meletus warns him to be careful because he is talking like the foreign philosophers such as Protagoras who was condemned in court. Socrates is sad to see the Athenians being influenced by jealousy and fear. Meletus says that Socrates talks about justice while others speak of patriotism. Socrates says that Athens is his country, and he proved it on the battlefield. He says wisdom is not only Athenian just as strength is not only Spartan. He is an Athenian but also a man. Meletus warns him that he could be accused of offending their gods and scorning their traditions. Socrates says they should evaluate their traditions and distrust customs. He says the leaders of their democracy are often led astray by newcomers and become guilty of being unjust. Every day they can see the increase of slander.
Socrates, Crito, and four others walk past a sacrifice to Aesculapius. A priest carries out the ritual by beheading a cock and cutting out its entrails. Socrates tells his friends that all they possess comes from the gods, and he wonders if the gods need their gifts. The priest offers leg meat to the god, and Socrates says he is hoping to get his wishes granted, even to be spared death. Crito says that death is more horrible than birth, but Socrates says it may be sweet if it allows them to approach the truth. Crito says they are all mortal. Socrates suggests that death may be a liberation; it is either knowledge that is forbidden, or he will gain it at death. He prays to die in the company of his friends and hopes he may find greater knowledge hereafter.
Citizens read posted on a wall that Meletus has accused Socrates of not believing in the Athenian gods and of corrupting the youth. The accuser demands the death penalty. A man reads this and runs off.
The man comes to the home of Socrates and tells him of the accusation. Socrates washes his face and tells him to sit down.
Socrates and the young man walk down a street. Hippias (Adolfo Thous) says he is giving a speech about the heroes and would like to know his opinion. Hippias says his speech is beautiful, and Socrates asks him to explain to him what beauty is. Hippias says it is a beautiful virgin, and Socrates asks about a beautiful mare or pot. Socrates notes that a beautiful virgin is ugly compared to a god. He asks how she can be beautiful and ugly at the same time. Hippias says he has to go and leaves.
A tall man asks Socrates why he is sorrowful. Socrates tells him an Egyptian story about Theuth who invented various arts such as mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and so on. Then he invented writing and said that this will help people develop their minds and their memories. However, the king disagreed and explained that he believed that writing will cause people to stop relying on their memories, and so they will lose much knowledge. They will quote texts instead of expressing their own ideas. He notes that one cannot question a book. Texts do not speak intelligently but can only repeat themselves. The man asks why he is thinking of this, and Socrates says because a written accusation against him was posted.
The other two men accompany Socrates to the Archon’s portico, and Socrates tells Euthyphro that he has been accused by Meletus of teaching new gods. Euthyphro says it must be because of the supernatural voice he hears in his head. They sit on the steps, and Euthyphro says that Athenians are suspicious of such things. Euthyphro says he can predict the future, but people laugh at him. Euthyphro says he is accusing his father, and Socrates asks him about it. Euthyphro explains that his father killed a laborer for having killed another laborer. Euthyphro claims that he is being pious and notes that Zeus punished his father Uranus for having devoured his children. Socrates asks if he really believes that. He asks Euthyphro what piety is, and he says it is what the gods approve. What the gods do not love is impious, but Socrates reminds him that he believes the gods disagree on some things. They fight like people, and Socrates says what pleases one may anger another. Euthyphro gets up and leaves.
At home Socrates tells Xantippe to calm down, but she is frantic that he is bringing woes upon them. The young man tells Socrates he must defend himself, but Socrates says he has been seeking justice his whole life. The man says he must contest the charges. Socrates tells his wife to stop crying, and she begs him to hire an orator to defend him. He agrees to hire one to please her, and the young man recommends he speak to Lysias, the greatest orator in Athens. She sends the young man to get Lysias.
Lysias (Paco Catala) is explaining to Socrates the parts of a good speech. First, the exordium is a ritual invocation. He suggests he praise the judges for their wisdom. In the narration he can criticize the accusers before the assembly. Socrates is known for his originality, and he is accused of disturbing the youths. He asks how new doctrines can corrupt the youth while the wise judges ignore their existence. They would have heard of them and refuted them already. He says that only weak-willed youths could be corrupted this way. He asks how Socrates can be ridiculed when they remember that he was a courageous soldier and a faultless judge of their laws. In his peroration he will ask them to pardon him because the accusations are insulting. They should respect his age and not cloud his last years when death will soon take him. They should absolve him.
Socrates asks Lysias what good this discourse would do for the judges. Lysias does not know and would be willing to harm the judges if it helped Socrates, who asks how it would help him if it harmed them. Socrates wants to do good. They agree that a life of truth is most valuable. If he parries their lies with other lies, the life he might gain would not be worth it. Socrates says life is worth living only in joy, and joy is only found in searching for truth. Truth, like the stars, is hard to reach. We can observe stars but not get close to them. Yet still one can recognize the truth without getting close to it. Lysias asks if he wants them to find him guilty. Socrates replies that if the democracy chooses to condemn him, it will have its reasons. Lysias says he is mad. He must not fear Meletus nor the demagogue Anytus nor Lycon the orator. He says the Athenians are sensitive to eloquence. Socrates says he will tell them truth in his own words and will see if they understand him. At his age he has no use for fancy words. Lysias hopes he is right and leaves. Socrates tells his wife that he will defend himself. She says it is another act of madness and that he will lose. She asks him to think of her and their children. He promises that he will as he speaks his own words. She is sure they will find him guilty because they hate him. She puts her arms around him and asks him not to leave them alone.
At night men with torches and lamps come to a building and are counted up to one thousand. They each draw a bean, and those with white beans are on the jury of judges. They do not know what case they will be judging. There will be 501 judges.
The next day the judges arrive at the court and sit on benches outside. An official sprinkles water around the speaker’s platform. Then he goes up its stairs and prays to Athena, the mother of wisdom to inspire them with her knowledge. He goes back to the steps of the building and announces that Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon have accused Socrates of first, not believing in the Athenian gods, second, of proposing new beliefs, and third, of corrupting the youth. The accusers demand the death penalty.
Meletus speaks first. He says he is accusing Socrates of impiety because of his love for Athens. He argues that Socrates intends to replace the gods of Athens with other spirits he does not define. He is more willing to destroy than to build. Now that peace has been restored, he threatens to unleash the anger of the gods against Athens. With a heavy heart he asks for the death penalty. He concludes that the fate of Athens is in their hands.
Anytus says they know that he loves the city. He warns that the gods may not spare them for the retribution because of what Socrates has done.
The young man runs to the home and tells Xantippe that Meletus gave a lousy speech that was not believed.
Lycon concludes his speech by asking them to make a conscientious decision.
Socrates notes that he is seventy years old and that it would not be seemly for him to begin using oratorical arts now. He will speak as he does normally in their streets. He speaks without formality seeking the truth. The law requires him to speak in his defense. First he must answer the slanders of the past twenty years which have tried to confuse them about what Socrates believes, suggesting that he worships the clouds. He says Aristophanes is an atheist and hides his lies under his buffoonery. He assures them that the character in that play does not resemble him at all. He does not walk on clouds and do scientific experiments. When they say that he charges money for teaching the youth, they are lying. He is content to search for the truth himself and admits that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. He says they may ask where these slanders came from, and he acknowledges that he does have some wisdom. He says his witness is the oracle at Delphi. He says that Chaerophon was in exile and has died, but his brother comes forward and says that Chaerophon went to the Pythian oracle which said that no one in the world is wiser than Socrates. The brother then steps down. Socrates says that he was surprised by the oracle which cannot lie. He decided to seek out people who are wise to see what it could mean. After questioning many eminent men he realized that the politicians, poets, and orators were presumed to have knowledge but really knew nothing. Socrates found that many of these powerful people became his enemies. He continues to serve the god by searching for the truth.
Socrates says that Meletus is an exemplary citizen, but he is guilty of dragging him into court for things he is ignorant about. He asks Meletus if educating the youth is important. Meletus comes forward and says yes. Since he believes that Socrates corrupts the youth, he asks him who improves the youth. Meletus says it is the laws. Socrates asks who knows the laws best. Meletus says it is these judges. Socrates asks which ones, and Meletus says all of them. He asks who else improves the youth, and Meletus agrees that except for Socrates all Athenians do. Socrates says that would be wonderful if he were the only corrupting influence. This proves that Meletus has no knowledge about his accusation. They agree that evil men harm those near them and that good men benefit those near them. Socrates asks if anyone prefers evils ways to the good, and Meletus says no one does. Socrates asks if he corrupts the youth voluntarily or not. Meletus says it is voluntary. Socrates asks why he would make people around him worse when that would be bad for him. If he corrupts them involuntarily, then he is not legally at fault. People snap their fingers in agreement. Socrates asks why none of his grown students are there to accuse him nor are any of their relatives. He asks him to call them forward to prove his case. Socrates asks if he believes in other gods or no god at all, and Meletus says he does not believe in any god. Meletus says he does not believe that the sun and moon are gods, but Socrates says he is confusing him with Anaxagoras who wrote such things in his book. Socrates asks how one could believe in the actions of gods without believing in gods, and Meletus agrees that is impossible. Socrates says if he believes in the manifestations of the gods, he must believe in the gods. Meletus is upset and goes back to his seat. Socrates concludes that the charges of Meletus are nothing but slander.
Socrates says this slander could cost him his life, but he is facing it courageously just as he kept to the post assigned him by generals in the war. He will keep to his duty to serve the gods. He notes that people fear death as if it were the worst of evils, but it may be the greatest of gifts. He suggests they recognize their ignorance of this matter. He will obey his god rather than them. Because God commands him to reason, he will not abandon that until his last breath. He says none of his accusers can say that he has profited from this work, as his poverty makes clear. He has never dared to give the city advice in the assembly before, and this is because his inner voice prevents him from intervening in politics. He says the voice has saved his life because if he had entered politics, he would have died long ago. He has finished his speech, and he does not ask for pity. He reminds them that the god put him there to seek the truth. If they let the accusers persuade them, then they will kill him. Then his god may not send another to them, and they may be lost in their torpor. He puts himself in their hands and in the laws that he respects. He asks that their decision be best for all of them.
The judges vote by putting their ballots in one of two urns. Crito tells his friends that if Socrates is condemned, he may offer an alternative punishment to death. The court official announces that Socrates was found guilty by a margin of 60 votes. Socrates is asked what he proposes to mitigate his sentence. Socrates says he is surprised the vote was so close. He asks what he deserves for his service to the god and his fellow citizens. He is a poor man. He suggests they could give him meals in the Prytaneum. He is warned not to provoke them. He does not want to go into exile at his age.
The official announces that the judges voted for the death penalty by a margin of 140 votes. The execution would normally be within 24 hours, but a holy ship has left that begins a sacred period during which no executions may take place. He says Socrates may make his final remarks. Socrates he would die soon anyway. He warns them that they may be affected by the injustice they committed. He notes that during the trial his divine sign never appeared to warn him that this would be bad for him. He concludes that this is the will of God. He reflects that death is either an eternal sleep or the soul’s journey to its home. Either way, he is not afraid. Before he dies, he asks them to torment his sons when they grow up if they show any presumption of knowledge as he tormented them. Now he is going to die and they to live. Which is better no one knows except God.
Crito tells his friends that they must come up with a plan to save Socrates. For a month the ship has been delayed, and they have been able to visit Socrates and talk with him. Now the wind has changed, and the ship is expected. They decide to send Crito to tell him he must die soon if he does not escape.
Crito walks to the prison at dawn and is let in to see Socrates who is asleep. Socrates awakes and asks why Crito is there. Crito is surprised that Socrates is so calm. He tells him the ship will return, and he will die in two days. Socrates said he had a dream that it will be on the third day. Crito urges him to let them help him to escape so that he can go to Thessaly. Socrates says he does not want to escape because that is a crime. He asks what the laws would say to him if he disregarded them. He says it would be an injustice. He asks what he would do in these other cities in the time he has left in his life. They would laugh at him, and he does not want to take his children away. He believes he would be committing a sacrilege. He is having mystical experiences that persuade him that death is nothing to fear. He lies down and goes back to sleep, and Crito leaves.
The Eleven come to remove the chains of Socrates and prepare him to take the hemlock. Xantippe has been visiting Socrates, and his friends enter his cell. Socrates notes how the pain of the chains mixes with the relief, showing that pain and pleasure are tied together. Xantippe weeps. Crito says she may frighten the children. Socrates says goodbye to his sons, and they go out with Xantippe. Socrates admits that he has been writing some verses while in prison. He is not afraid of death because it is the separation of the soul from the body. A youth says that a wise man should not hasten his time of death. Socrates agrees that is the will of the gods. He asks what is bothering them, but they do not want to burden him with their fears. Socrates says it is difficult to persuade them, but for him death is not a calamity. Cebes says he is afraid that after the soul leaves the body, it may die eventually also. Socrates asks what gives life to the body, and Cebes says it is the soul. If the soul is always the giver of life, then it is the opposite of death. Socrates concludes that the soul as life cannot be its opposite which is death. Those beings that escape death are called immortal. Since the soul cannot receive death, it must be immortal. They must believe that the soul is immortal, and they must take care of it during their entire lives. If death were the end, it would be good for evil men because their evil would disappear. Socrates tells them to prepare the potion and goes to bathe his body so that Xantippe and the women will not have to do it for burial. Crito asks how they should bury him. Socrates says they can do it any way they like if they can catch him.
Outside the prison Xantippe is comforting her sons and tells them to be valiant citizens of Athens because they are sons of Socrates. She says his courage is quiet, and he never gave up his ideals to please anyone. He speaks not for his own good but for everyone’s. She tells them not to cry because they are sons of a hero.
Socrates is dressed and tells them to call his family. They return, and Socrates hugs his sons. He takes them aside to tell them something. Then the sons leave, and he embraces Xantippe. She cries and hugs him, but he calms her down. She goes out. Socrates asks the man with the poison what he is to do. He says he drinks to the gods and drinks the poison. He asks his friends why they are crying and tells them to be strong. He walks back and forth until his legs feel heavy. He says they slander the swans because they sing before dying. He lies down on the bed and his body is covered. Socrates removes the cover and tells Crito that they owe a cock to Aesculapius and to be sure it is paid. Then he covers his face again.
This biopic portrays the last few years of Socrates when the Athenians turned against him during their grief at the lost war. Many people hate him because two of his students became criminals and harmed Athens. Yet Socrates keeps searching for the truth and refuses to do anything he considers unjust. Finally he explains to his friends how death may be a liberation of the soul from the chains of the body.