• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2015

    Battleship Potemkin in Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew

    On Sunday we held an outdoor silent film night and we watched Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin. It was the first time I had seen the film and enjoyed finally seeing such a well-renown film and finding it matching up to its reputation. I could probably write a great deal about it, given the time, but for now I'll restrict myself to the observation that is most pertinent to this blog, namely how it relates to Pasolini's 1964 Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Saint Matthew).

    Pasolini was, as is often noted, a Marxist, and many commentators note the ways that he portrays Jesus as some kind of revolutionary leader. One of the other main things that is frequently discussed about his Jesus film is the eclectic mix of songs on the soundtrack. Strangely, though, I don't recall anyone ever mentioning how Pasolini includes one of the key pieces of music from the film's original score in Il Vangelo, particularly as it appears at such moment to make it clear it's a reference.*

    For those unfamiliar with Battleship Potemkin I should explain that it's a Soviet propaganda piece released to celebrate 20 years since the famous 1905 uprising of the crew of the titular vessel. In the film, at least, the person whose outcry starts the overthrow of the ship's oppressive leadership is one of only a few of his comrades killed in the battle that follows. There then follows a poignant scene where his body is brought to shore and the people of Odessa form a mighty procession to mourn his passing and celebrate his sacrifice and denounce the oppressive authorities.

    Eisenstein apparently wanted a new score to be recorded ever ten years. The first was apparently uninspiring but one written the following year by Edmund Meisel, stuck, at least until 1950 when Nikolai Kryukov wrote a new one for the film's 25 year anniversary. More recently a whole range of new scores have been written and performed for the film including ones by the Pet Shop Boys and, Roger Ebert's favourite version, Concrete. But, effectively, it's Miesel's version that is considered the "original" and, significantly, it's the only one that the BFI included in their recent Bluray release. (There's a nice piece on Miesel's and Kryukov's scores here by S. Lopez Figueroa).

    So it's interesting that Pasolini takes this music and uses it to accompany a few scenes of Jesus gaining widespread popularity whilst preaching his seven woes against the Jewish authorities. Like Battleship Potemkin there are scenes of swelling crowds with sometimes people rushing to join the throng, others being more reflective. Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees links to the angery speeches made against the Russian authorities.

    Whilst a few of the shots are formally reminiscent of Eisenstein's (such as the one above compared to the ones from Potemkin below), it's much more the overall impression from a sequence of similar shots, aided, at least for modern viewers, by the fact both films are in black and white, but more to do with the movement of people and the camera, the close ups, the expressions and so on. And of course it's the identical music.

    [Shazaming Pasolini's version of it brought up "La chanson des martyrs" (The song of the martyrs) from the album "Les Choeurs de L'Armée Rouge" (Choir of The Red Army) by Boris Alexandrov, but the dearth of any further information elsewhere suggests it was original to Meisel.]
    But as well as this being the moment when Jesus is at his most revolutionary, it's also the moment when its starts to look like his demise is imminent. So the music links him to the Russian revolutionary seaman Vakulinchuk who loses his life in the fight for freedom and the audience knows that Jesus' life will be similarly lost.

    Watching the scenes from Pasolni's film again, I'm also struck by the way the Roman soldiers appear in the scene. In almost all Jesus films the soldiers are the enemy, usually totally dehumanised, barring the centurion who will convert as Jesus dies. But the rank and file are usually presented as little more than cogs in the machine that will ultimately crush this Jewish saviour. Pasolini's film does particularly develop these soldiers into three dimensional characters.

    Apart from anything the nature of the project leaves them no dialogue, but they are significantly more sympathetic here than in most films. And I think that rests as much on these scenes as anything. Jesus is preaching revolution and the soldiers are happy to let it go on, interested, even, in what is being said. And in the light of Eisenstein's film this becomes a little more obvious why. Pasolini's portrayal is not because they, like him, is Italian. It's because they, like his heroes, are part of the proletariat. Indeed in Eisenstein's film it is the fighting men of the navy who first rise up. Jesus' revolutionary message, then, is for them and indeed to Pasolini they are part of the crowd rather than just a means to control it.

    Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that this connection is overlooked. Not only are the majority of those studying Jesus and film from the theology side of the equation, rather than the film studies, but also it's worth remembering when Pasolini's film was released. In 1964 (or 1966 in the US), the Cold War was at its peak. McCarthyism had reached its zenith in the previous decade and the ban on Battleship Potemkin in the UK had only been lifted because its widespread distribution was seen as unviable.

    I think it is very significant though. To any film student, least of all an avowed Marxist, Battleship Potemkin is a critical film. And Pasolini's link with it is deliberate and full of meaning.

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    *I must confess this statement is built on combination of recollection, Googling and checking the key books on the subject. I'm sure someone has made the connection before. I just don't recall anyone saying it and it appears (from an admittedly briefish scan) that not one of Babbington, Evans, Stern, Jefford, Debona, Walsh, Tatum, Reinhartz or Baugh mention it in their tomes.

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