• 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.

    Saturday, October 19, 2019

    Operai, contadini (Workers,Peasants)

    Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2000) find Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet returning to the work of Italian marxist Elio Vittorini following 1998's Sicilia! their first adaptation of his work. The title alone expresses one of the key themes of twentieth century Italian life, the division between the industrial north and the rural south. Particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s many of the peasant farmers migrated northwards to find work in the upper regions of Italy as the economy in and around Milan boomed. Countries are commonly divided between north and south, or (east and west) or between the lower and middle classes, but divisions between classes, not just in terms of attitudes, but also lifestyle, in this manner are particular to Italy.

    Vittorini's novel ("Le donne di Messina") tells the story of a community of workers and peasants in post WWII Italy who come together from all over the nation to form a new community. Rather than locating their film amongst houses and streets, however, Huillet and Straub situate it entirely in the forest. As Tag Gallagher summarises, Straub/Huillet turn the material "into a celebration of a New Eden", most notably a final shot where the action finally pans away from the tight collection of medium and mid-shots to a wide-shot capturing a glint of the horizon in the far distance (2005).

    To achieve this however Huillet and Straub have to end their film in the middle of Vittorini's novel where the attempt to build an idealised community is ultimately unsuccessful. Of course, I say "Vittorini's novel" as if a clearly established single work exists, but as those who have read my review of their other films will be aware, things are rarely so straightforward. Indeed, "Le donne di Messina" exists in several versions rewritten over the fifteen year period between 1948 and 1963.

    Another unusual aspect of Vittorini's work is the variety of perspectives it is told from. Guido Bonsaver observes how "the persona of the traditional narrator is replaced by a polysemy of voices which 'decentres' the narrative act" (2017: 166). Again this is familiar territory for Huillet and Straub (History Lessons springs to mind). Whilst these include a traditional narrator, a "registro" and a journalist, there are also a range of voices from the workers/peasants themselves. In typical fashion Straub/Huillet adopt and formalise this approach, using twelve characters (again raising religious connotations) who deliver their lines with varying degrees of deadpan, and limited movement or use of gestures. The characters give different perspectives on the same material, most notably in a long section where various performers share their experience of the process of making ricotta cheese. In so doing they reverse one of cinema's oldest adages, "show, don't tell".

    For the first time, however, Huillet and Straub's characters hold scripts - though the degree to which they are actually read from varies. Whilst this marks a development for the pair it was interesting to read in Christopher Small's discussion of this film that this is, in fact, an established style in parts of Tuscany. The maggio, is "a dramatic form in which texts are read in a declamatory, highly stylized, and non-psychological style" (Small). Performances are "produced, written, staged, and performed by peasants and for peasants" (Small). It's hard to think of a traditional theatrical style more idealistically wedded to that of Straub/Huillet, and, scripts aside, it is particularly noticeable in the works of their that are either set in Italy, or performed in the language.

    What is also quite striking about the film is the unusual style of the shots. As with other films of theirs, the camera-work relies heavily on very long takes, interspersed with the occasional attention-attracting pan. Whilst the film uses a mix of one, two and indeed three-shots, many of the one shots stand out because of the way they frame their subjects. Whilst the camera's distance suggests a mid-shot, from waist up, and the subject faces it in straightforward fashion, they are not framed in typical fashion: only their shoulders and heads appear within the shot, leaving a larger than usual space above their heads.

    The manner in which the film concludes with so much of the novel still remaining is perhaps because Straub and Huillet already planned to produce a third adaptation of Vittorini's works in Il Ritorno del figlio prodigo/Umiliati (The Return of the Prodigal Son/Humiliated) which continues some of the themes developed here. Indeed discussion of the Prodigal Son has already occurred partway through this film. I'm yet to see Il Ritorno so perhaps I'll save my discussion of that theme until then.

    - Bonsaver, Guido (2017), Elio Vittorini: The Writer and the Written, London and New York: Routledge.
    - Gallagher, Tag (2005), "Lacrimae Rerum Materialized", Senses of Cinema, (37) October. Available online - http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/straubs/.
     - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: “Workers, Peasants", mubi.com Notebook Column, September 24, Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-workers-peasants.


    Tuesday, October 15, 2019

    The Human Touch: Jesus' Hands in Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

    I've been thinking quite a bit about Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) recently and been doing some close analysis on the shots. I'll write more at a later stage (maybe), but for now, I couldn't help noticing this time around, how in may scenes Jesus is surprisingly intimate with those who are coming, quite literally into contact with him. This is partly something that the camera does - more on that in another post, but also, it's noticeable how often he deliberately physically touches someone.

    These moments are not just casual, irregular moments in the film, they consistently occur at the emotional high point of the scene: the moment when someone is healed; or the moment someone decides to turn their life around.

    I think these are both of the daughter of Jairus, one as he is healing her, then one as if to comfort her afterwards.

    Below is Jesus with Mary Magdalene at the house of Simon the Pharisee. This is the only shot that could be described as a two-shot, but they are common throughout these scenes.

    This last one is (obviously) not Jesus, but two of his disciples, Peter and Matthew. This is from the end / emotional high at the end of Jesus' narration of the Parable of the Prodigal Son at a feast at Matthew's house. The two men, who previously were enemies, are reconciled. It's interesting that they have clearly been learning about this trait of Jesus' and have now started doing it instinctively themselves.


    Saturday, October 05, 2019

    Der Tod des Empedokles (1986)

    On the surface the similarities between Der Tod des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles, 1986) and Moses und Aron are plain: it's another pre-Christian era adaptation of a revered, unfinished German work. Throughout both works a mountain looms in the background, remote, yet nevertheless seemingly the source of a spiritual force exerting itself on the characters. Of all the films about Moses, Straub and Huillet's take is the one that focuses most squarely on his philosophical side. Here they deal with a philosopher-leader, Empedocles of Akragas, a city in the then-Greek city of Sicily.

    The film's full title is Der Tod des Empedokles, Trauserspiel in Zwei Akten von Freidrich Hölderlin 1978 Oder: Wenn dann der Erde Grün von Neuem Erglänzt (The Death of Empedocles, in Two Acts by Freidrich Hölderlin 1798 or: When the Green of the Earth will Glisten for you Anew), but hidden away amongst those twenty words is a year, 1798. This is significant because Hölderlin's play is not only unfinished but exists in three incomplete manuscripts: The first version from 1798 that Huillet/Straub cover here, the following year he wrote two other attempts, the last of which Straub/Huillet also adapted two years after Der Tod as the rather more snappily titled Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988). Then in 1991 they completed their final adaptation of Hölderlin's work Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (The Antigone After Sophocles' Translation Adapted for the Stage by Brecht 1948).

    But the "Hölderlin films" as they are often referred to are not three works, but seven, because Huillet and Straub created two adaptations of Antigone and four different prints of Der Tod, and not just four different cuts of the same material, but four concurrent versions. The version which has been screening at MUBI is officially known as the Berlin version (as it fist screen at the film festival there) and is distinguished by a lizard which scurries across a step halfway through the film. The version originally intended for a wider (subtitled) distribution is the Paris version which according to Leslie Hill "began more gloomily, before brightening up as the sun came out" (Hill 2012: 143). A third, known as the rooster version, was "completed with a class of students" at Hamburg's Filmhaus and is distinguished by a cock crowing after around twenty minutes (Hill 2012: 143). This is the version that Pummer considers "the most beautiful version, because it has the most contrast and strongest color saturation" (2016: 69). Finally there is the version seemingly not connected with a particular geographic location, but marked by the occasional chirps of crickets on the soundtrack.

    Straub and Huillet's intention here seems to be to ensure that no version "could be considered as more or less authoritative than any of the others" and to avoid having a "privileged master text" (Hill 2012: 143). The different prints do not exists as longer or shorter cuts - each consists of the same 147 shots, each shot from the same position and with the same settings on the camera as the others and the actors perform in the same, typically deadpan, style. The difference, then, is down to what happens in front of the camera, that is outside of their control. Their repeated reliance on natural sound, and on this occasion natural light, means that these elements remain outside of their control, animals can intrude into the material text of the film, lighting can change the mood, the wind can blow or be still. The four variations, then, highlight these more material elements of cinema itself, the sheer variability of the options available to filmmakers. It also emphasises the differences between film and reality. What is recorded by the camera can be reproduced, but is never an accurate reproduction of how things really were.

    Furthermore it also prevents the three versions of Hölderlin's unfinished mourning play from being reduced down into one definitive version. Film adaptations compared to their literary works, particularly unfinished works, are not unlike the comparison between jam and the original. The jamming process involves cutting out the work's most widely appreciated parts and boils it down bringing out certain essentials meaning something is lost, but it is also preserving process which makes the fruit accessible for a far wider audience. Huillet/Straub attempt to highlight the nature of this process - their differing products retain a far stronger connection to the original, as well as highlight the essentially false nature of a film adaptation.

    In particular, making these four variations is also a way of reflecting the tragedy's unfinished nature, just as Hölderlin never made a definitive, official version of his play, so too, in an appropriately manner there is no single authoritative version of this film. Ironically, then, in some ways the mass-circulation of one particular version of the film, as happens when a company like MUBI makes it available for streaming worldwide works against this intention, as does writing about the films on the basis of a viewing of just one version as I have done here. The french Editions Montparnasse are a superb resource for fans of Straub/Huillet, not least because they provide a practically exhaustive collection of all of Straub's work, but they too only include a single version. It's understandable, and my citing of MUBI and Editions Montparnasse is not criticism as such - without them I would not have seen the film - but it does work some way against Huillet and Straub's clear intention to resist a definitive version of the film. Perhaps this is why the pair also adapted Hölderlin's third attempt at the subject just two years later, and in a different but related fashion.

    Hill also highlights the theological links between Moses und Aron and Der Tod, noting how Hölderlin was writing amidst the mental upheaval of the French Revolution - something the author was initially in favour of, and certainly something which appealed to Straub and Huillet's Marxist nature:
    Both took place at a time of upheaval, as one theological edifice, legal framework, political power, or conception of the artwork gave way to another, resulting in an interregnum in which what was at stake was the promise or threat of the future. Both texts, moreover, were stories of sacrifice, (Hill 2012: 148)
    The nature of that sacrifice, however, varies significantly between the two stories. It is unclear in Moses und Aron to what extent those being sacrificed are willing participants. However, in "Der Tod...", the sacrifice is an act of suicide from which his friend Pausanias tries to dissuade him. In Hölderlin's original version, Empedokles' death occurs at the end of the play when he hurls himself into Mount Etna's crater, though it is never explicitly confirmed that this is what has actually happened. This ambiguity is even more pronounced in the film, as it ends on a shot of the top of the mountain which begins with Empedokles speaking. Viewed apart from the rest of the film the natural assumption would be at this point he is still alive, gazing up at the top of Etna as he readies himself for his death. In other words, the "death" mentioned in the film's title never actually occurs during the duration of the film. That said, the discontinuity of the cutting that has been so prevalent throughout the film also questions this.

    The meaning of Empedocles death is no less ambiguous. For Small, "Empedocles dives into the fire in order to vanish into thin air"in order that his fellow citizens would believe by his death "he had been set...on the path to reincarnation" (2019). On the other hand, for Hill Empedocles' death is "in order to reconcile the epoch with itself by way of a spectacular fusion of the finite with the infinite, history with eternity, man with nature." (Hill 2012: 144).

    Two years later Huillet and Straub would return to Hölderlin and Empedocles in Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988), based on the third version of the play. At only 40 minutes in length and featuring a largely, but not entirely, different cast, the very static camerawork of Der Tod made way for a more varied style. Of particular note are a number of panning shots which, based on their descriptions sound not dissimilar to those in Moses und Aron. Sadly that film is not part of the MUBI retrospective, so it may be a while until I can write about it.
    - Hill, Leslie (2012), “O Himmlisch Licht!”, Angelaki (Journal of the Theoretical Humanities) 17:4, 139-155.
    - Pummer, Claudia (2016), "(Not Only) for Children and Caveman: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", in Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, pp.7-95.
    - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: The Death of Empedocles", mubi.com Notebook Column, September 11, Available online:


    Friday, September 13, 2019

    The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium: New Heart and New Spirit

    The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium:
    New Heart and New Spirit

    Edited by Wickham Clayton

    Manchester University Press (2020)
    296 pages - Hardback
    ISBN 978-1526136572
    Publication Date: 13/1/2020

    I've been meaning to post about the forthcoming publication of the latest book to feature an essay of mine. "The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium: New Heart and New Spirit" will feature 14 essays by various film scholars on the biblical epics to have emerged since The Passion of the Christ in 2004. I'm particularly pleased that it's being published by Manchester University Press whose book "Biblical Epics" by Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans is one of the seminal works in this field.

    My chapter is called "The Nativity Re-Born: Genre and the Birth and Childhood of Jesus" and in it I discuss various Nativity films released since The Passion and how they have stayed true to or innovated with the conventions of the genre. As well as the link with MUP it's also pleasing to be contributing to a book compiled with cinema scholars in mind rather than those approaching the theological angle. It's nice to have contributed to both.

    The book is already available to order online. In the meantime, you can read a little more about the book at the Manchester University Press website, and I have posted a list of the contributions below.


    The Bible Onscreen in the New Millennium: New Heart and New Spirit

    Introduction - Wickham Clayton
    Part I: Producing Biblical Film and Television
    1-Battle over the Biblical Epic: Hollywood, Christians and the American Culture Wars - Karen Patricia Heath
    2-Depicting 'Biblical' Narratives: A Test Case on Noah - Peter Phillips
    3-Special Effects and CGI in the Biblical Epic Film - Andrew B. R. Elliott
    4-The Phenomenon of Biblical Telenovelas in Latin America - Clarice Greco, Mariana Marques De Lima and Tissiana Nogueira Pereira

    Part II: Modern Narratives and Contexts in Adapting the Bible
    5-Mythic Cinema And the Contemporary Biblical Epic - Mikel J. Koven
    6-The Nativity Re-Born: Genre and the Birth and Childhood of Jesus - Matthew Page
    7-Convince Me: Conversion Narratives in the Modern Biblical Epic - Chris Davies

    Part III: Critical Readings and Receptions
    8-Controversy And the 'Culture War': Exploring Tensions Between the Secular and the Sacred In Noah, the 'Least Biblical Biblical Movie Ever' - Becky Bartlett
    9-'Can Anything Good Come Out Of Southern California?'* (*Hyperlink to John 1:46): The Christian Critical Reception of Elliptical Jesus Narratives - Wickham Clayton
    10-Examining the Digital Religion Paradigm: A Mixed-Method Analysis of Online Community Perception of Epic Biblical Movies - Gregory P. Perrault And Thomas S. Mueller

    Part IV: Culture And Representation
    11-The Devil and the Culture Wars: Demonising Controversy in The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion Of The Christ - Karra Shimabukuro
    12-Ben-Her(?): Soft Stardom, Melodrama, and the Critique of Epic Masculinity In Ben-Hur (2016) - Thomas J. West III
    13-The Biblical-Trial Film: Social Contexts in L'Inchiesta and Risen - Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns and Emiliano Aguilar
    14-'Squint Against the Grandeur': Iconoclasm and Film Genre in The Passion of the Christ and Hail, Caesar!


    Monday, September 02, 2019

    Trop tôt/Trop tard Too Early/Too Late

    Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981) is Huillet and Straub's other film set in Egypt, only here it is documentary rather than drama. Before getting to Egypt though the film begins in France. The film's opening shot is one of its two most memorable - a six and a half minute rotational pan, (presumably shot from the side of a vehicle) going round and round the Place de la Bastille in France. It's a clear signifier of what is to follow - an exploration of the cycle of revolutions in France and Egypt. There's no doubt a pun here, revolutions of the camera in a film about revolutions. Most of the rest of the film, both the French and the Egyptian segments comprise of a series of long takes, either static, or panning, often in complete circles.

    Whilst this is happening two monologues are read out. Firstly there is a letter by Freidrich Engels detailing the extent of poverty in various villages and towns in pre-Revolution France. Then there are longer sections from the Cahiers de Doléances. These are read out by Huillet herself and is accompanied by images of the relevant locations today. Usually they are peaceful, places where people largely are not and the calmness of the imagery and (as ever, direct) sound belies the grim statistics that are being recited. One notable example is a shot of the side of a rural building upon which someone has graffitied "Les paysons se revolteront 1976" (the countries will revolt 1976) in big red letters. It is at this point that Huillet reaches the passage that includes the film's title, the point being that "the peasants always start the revolt too early and, then when it comes to seizing power, they arrive too late" (Pummer, 2016: 60). Engels was writing on the eve of the 1789 revolution in France.

    In the Egyptian segment, the reading is more recent, the author Bahgat Elnadi reads from the book he wrote with Adel Riffat under the pseudonym Mahmoud Hussein about the overthrow of British colonial powers. The film's most famous shot, is a ten minute static diagonal shot of workers leaving a factory in Egypt. The nature of the shot recalls the Lumière Brothers Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). The section is considerably longer here, but the parallels between the two segments are apparent. That said there is one stark contrast: whilst the French footage is deserted, the Egyptian footage is peppered with human activity. The camera maintains a discreet distance, in an attempt not to interfere with the world they wish to document; "their respectful distance allows for the anonymous Egyptian peasants and workers to...occupy and traverse the space entirely on their own terms" (Small 2019).This is documentary filmmaking at the opposite end of the spectrum to the vox pop heavy style of our own era.

    There are various similarities with Straub and Huillet's other work here, in particular Fortini/Cani (1978) which similarly accompanies a writer's work with images of the described locations today, but also the long tracking shots of History Lessons (1972) and The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp (1968). And of course, the handful of shots in Moses und Aron (1974) taken in Egypt.

    It's a film that has the ability to create startling reactions. At one point Jonathan Rosenbaum put it on his all-time top ten list for "Sight and Sound". "The extraordinary result of this technique is that one almost feels able to taste these places, to contemplate them – to observe and think about them" (Rosenbaum 1983). Many have looked at Huillet and Straub's films and conclude that nothing really happens. But in fact, the second half of the film is teeming with activity if you observe closely enough, it is just that they keep a respectful distance from us just as they do to the characters who move across the screen. No matter where people are in relation to their camera and their screen, they do not tell us how to act and react.

    Pummer, Claudia (2016), "(Not Only) for Children and Caveman: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", in Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen.

    Rosenbaum, Joanthan (1983), Film: The Front Line, Denver: Arden Press.

    Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: Too Early, Too Late", mubi.com Notebook Column, August 6, Available online: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-too-early-too-late.


    Saturday, August 31, 2019

    Klassenverhältnisse (1984)

    Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations 1984) is Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet's only adaptation of the works of Franz Kafka, which is itself a little surprising. It's based on Kafka's unfinished novel "Amerika", also known as "Der Verschollene" or, in English, "The Man who Disappeared". I'm sorely tempted to say that simply navigating one's way through those various titles feels a little Kafkaesque, but I'm aware that doing do is no doubt will prove too irritating for many. Nevertheless various commentators have discussed Huillet and Straub's change of title, which aligns with the Marxist nature of their cinema, yet for Straub "the title is good because this is precisely what the film does not do" (cited in Bösler 2004: 116). As Bösler herself observes "rather than telling us what we will be shown and told, the title Klassenverhältnisse encourages us to look and listen for what there is to see and hear" (Bösler 2004: 117).

    The novel, for those who are unfamiliar with it, focuses on a young German migrant, Karl Rossmann, who is essentially a stand in for Kafka himself. Aside from sharing a mother tongue, age and status in life and the prominent 'Ka' sound at the start of their names, Kafka and Karl also shared difficult relations with their parents. Karl has been sent away to America by his parents and finds himself being shunted around from place to place in search of employment. He is a largely passive figure seemingly unable to control his destiny, instead being manipulated  and oppressed by the vast majority of the figures he encounters.

    Whilst I've written about various of Huillet/Straub's adaptations from novels, this is the first I have actually read and it's interesting watching their always notable adaptation process more closely. As is typical most of the story and the dialogue makes it into the screenplay, but little of the text's elaboration, though the details are largely their to be observed. This contrasts markedly with Welles' adaption of The Trial (1962). Where he tries to capture all the details described so meticulously in Kafka's prose, Straub/Huillet try and limit it to the character's perspective.

    The shots are largely either static diagonal mid shots, or long panning shots, such as when Karl first observes the buildings housing his Uncle's business. Delivery is not-quite deadpan, but certainly muted. This is a development from Moses und Aron (1974) when Schoenberg's use of Sprechstimme (a form of speech halfway between singing and speech) formed something of a launching point. Speech delivery had always interested them and from there on they began to experiment more with language as an 'object' rather than merely a 'vehicle'. In an interview with Hans Hurch around the film's original release, the pair liken their use of language to the works of Bach, or an oratorio. They layer different styles of delivery and even get actors to pause on occasion in the middle of a word.

    The stilted nature of both the delivery and the acting serves to highlight  the handful of moments where sudden violence is done to Karl. This happens three times in particular where someone strikes or grabs part of Karl's head or neck. Each time it's a medium close-up of Karl against a solid object. Each time an arm thrusts suddenly towards him from the edge of the frame and then the pose is held for long enough to observe Karl's discomfort. The owner of the arm remains out of shot. It is not that Karl is necessarily hurt by these 'attacks', but they are nevertheless a shocking intrusion, not least because he offers no resistance as we are trained to expect. These moments are particularly striking because so many of the film's "gestures and actions are performed with a denaturalizing, and at times almost mechanical deliberation, [which] heightens the impact of even the minutest action which does occur" (Bösler 2004, 122). The attacks silence or oppress Karl, a summation of the story's overall oppression of its lead. There is at least one counter shot when Karl is talking to Theresa, one of only two characters who are sympathetic towards him. The framing is similar but her arm only touches his arm and the contact is gentle rather than forceful.

    The film is also deeply concerned about spaces, with the physical blocking expressing the awkwardness of Karl in this oddly ill-fitting and harsh world. It's a world where a young man might find himself sent to the other end of the world for getting a servant girl pregnant, or might loses face with his uncle for accepting a dinner invitation, or even might lose his job simply for stepping away from this post for a minute or to. These little injustices follow Karl around, while the behaviours of those around him get odder and odder. The sequence of shots breaks the Hollywood rules of continuity editing - there are few establishing shots, or master shots summarising the geography of the scenes. Even attempting to place how the scenes relate to each other by cross referencing eye lines, sources of light and so forth is frustrated by Straub/Huillet's shot selection. "Each new shot, however, introduces a variation in camera angle and distance" so that "the viewer's understanding of its spatial parameters" advances as the scene progresses (Plummer 2016: 66).

    A friend of mine, who knows Kafka better than me, says adaptations of his work are always somewhat odd, largely because the quirky nature of the source material attracts unusual filmmakers and inspires then to make bold and creative efforts to justice to the material. For Huillet and Straub it was the only other one of their films to be shot outside of Europe aside from Too Early, Too Late (1981) and sections of Moses und Aron. These include a tracking shot capturing New York's Statue of Liberty. In the book Kafka, famously, gets a detail wrong, (perhaps purposefully) replacing her flame with a sword. It's the kind of detail which adds to the confused dreamy nature of the book, which Straub and Huillet capture so well with their odd and semi-disengaging film.

    Bösler, Ursula (2004), The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening: The Politics of Representation in the Work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", Frankfurt / Berlin / Bern / Bruxelles / NewYork / Oxford / Wien: Peter Lang.

    Pummer, Claudia (2016), "(Not Only) for Children and Caveman: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", in Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen.


    Wednesday, August 07, 2019

    Accent Alt Codes for Film Critics

    As someone who is often writing about non-English language films, I am forever trying to find the shortest possible alt-codes for various accents from foreign languages. Various sites are helpful, but none seems to give me everything I want, and frequently they provide a huge list when only a handful are required. So here's a quick guide, which you can either bookmark to remind yourself (as I will), or learn (as I seem incapable of doing) or copy and paste the letters from below. Even so I've given examples of film names /words that use them. Hope it helps.

    Alt+133 - à - as in Cinecittà
    Alt+160 - á - as in Adán y Eva
    Alt+135 - ç - as in François Truffaut
    Alt+130 - é - as in Pathé
    Alt+138 - è - as in Danièle Huillet or mise-en-scène
    Alt+164 - ñ - as in Buñuel
    Alt+148 - ö - as in Schönberg*
    Alt+151 - ù - as in Gesù

    In Word and PowerPoint only
    Alt+0322 - ł - as in Paweł Pawlikowski
    Alt+0347 - ś - as in Kieślowski

    *N.B. However, according to Ute Holl he preferred to use the anglicised version "Schoenberg".

    Wednesday, July 31, 2019

    Is Malick Working on a Jesus Film?
    The Last Planet to include scenes from Jesus' life

    Behind the scenes shot from Terrence Malick's 2012 film To The Wonder showing a multiplicity of crosses
    Various sites are reporting that Terrence Malick, the director of Tree of Life (2011) and The Thin Red Line (1998) has begun filming some kind of movie featuring scenes from the life of Jesus.

    The Last Planet has begun filming in Tor Caldara, Anzio near Rome, at least according to Italian site Corriere Città (City Courier). Filming has taken place both at the nature reserve there and the nearby beach. (There's an overhead shot of the region's coastline here)

    My Italian is still not very good but the jist of what is being said is that the film has "tema storico e religioso" (a historical and religous theme) and will cover various parts of the life of Jesus, including "la rappresentazione di parabole evangeliche" (a representation of the parables from the Gospels). I think some sites have mistranstlated that last bit as "evangelical parables". It's not clear however if this a full dramatisation of the life of Jesus; a drama which covers a wider period of time, but with some scenes featuring Jesus; or a documentary.

    Another Italian site - Studio 93 - also includes a quote from the city's mayor Candido De Angelis "è onorata di essere stata scelta da un regista e artista contemporaneo dello spessore internazionale di Terrence Malick" ([The town] is honoured to be chosen by a contemporary artist and director with the international significance of Terrence Malick").

    Two of Malick's films faetured in the most recent Arts and Faith Top 100 films list, Days of Heaven (1978) and The New WOrld (2005).

    Thanks to Efrain for alerting me to this via the Bible Films Facebook Page.

    Edit: (13/09/2019) More stories have been swirling about this film this week, including the casting of Mark Rylance as Satan, and Son of Saul star Géza Röhrig as Jesus. My friend Peter Chattaway has more details.


    Monday, July 22, 2019

    Your Own, Virtual, Jesus*

    I've been thinking about the two Virtual Reality Jesus films recently. I say "films" but really I question whether JesusVR really fits within what we would call a film, at least in the format it is currently available in. At present, you can download the film as an app from iTunes and, with a fairly cheap 'specialised' headset, watch it from the comfort of your own home.

    When you do, however, you discover that after each scene you are returned to the menu to choose which sequence you would like to see next. It breaks any sense of reality and narrative flow. In some ways it might not be uncommon to how some of the earliest cinema audiences experienced their films. Some theatres will have had multiple cameras and their owners might have spliced together all the different episodes into as few reels as possible, but I imagine that wasn't the universal experience. There are also parallels with the way people tend to experience the Bible as well - in chunks at a time, commonly just a single passage, rather than reading the whole thing through in one go.

    Those things and the way the footage is shot gives JesusVR the feel of a hi-tech museum piece, a bit like a 21st century version of the Jorvik museum, for those who know what that is. The location feels real, as do the costumes, and in a sense it feels like you're their, but there's also something oddly stilted and lifeless about the whole after. I'll discuss that later when I review it.

    Whilst I've not yet seen 7 Miracles I understand it is somewhat different in these respects. There are three main reasons for this assumption. The first is that it recently appeared at the Raindance festival, and there's an interesting piece on that here. In fact, not only did it appear at the festival, it also won the 'VR Film of The Festival' award. This suggests a level of quality above that of JesusVR. Secondly there is also quite a bit of footage to be seen in this vlog review on YouTube and certainly it looks better than JesusVR and solves some of the problems with it's predecessor.

    The third point is the filmmakers claim that this is "the first feature length VR film". What's particularly odd about this is that several of those involved with JesusVR are also involved with 7 Miracles. Enzo Sisti (who helped produce The Passion of the Christ, Aquaman and Life Aquatic) is a producer on both films, 7 Miracles' co-director/producer, Rodrigo Cerqueira, was the VR Technical Director for JesusVR and some of the more technical teams like sets, costumes and make-up, are largely the same. I suppose it might just be a pitch, but it feels like, for them at least, they see 7 Miraclesas doing something that its predecessor. And it's cool, I guess, that Bible films are at the forefront of the new technology, just as they were when the "new" technology was "moving pictures", 120+ years ago.

    The other thing that is reminiscent of 120 years ago is the static nature of the camera. At present the technology does not allow for much camera movement, and because the viewer is "in" the shot, cutting to a different scenes is jarring and disorientating. This in turn tends to lead to mid-length shots and long takes, typically one shot per scene. Films such as the Pathé Passion Plays are often seen as unsophisticated but they are actually just the forerunners of the kind of long-take photography that Bazin championed over half a century later. The Passion plays allowed the viewer to choose for themselves where to focus their attention as the cinematic grammar hadn't yet taken hold. So too it is with the VR films where the viewer can determine for themselves where to look having a far wider space available to them.

    Furthermore, the use of technology, turns out to be fairly radical in terms of cinematic syntax, grammar and, by extension, meaning. By allowing the viewer to have a 360° vision and to decide for themselves where they wish to look, cherished concepts in film studies such as mise-en-scène are largely left redundant. Moreover, ideas such as authorship take a new turn: if the viewer determines where they look at any given moment, then the importance of the traditional gatekeepers of what is included in the frame is diminished. As Collin observes, “the director’s control starts and ends with their initial camera placement – which means the close-up is out, along with pans, tilts, zooms and shallow focus”.

    It will be interesting to see how these aspects develop as the technology improves - something else it might have in common with those early films. Certainly, based on the limited snippets I have seen from 7 Miracles it gets you closer to the action that JesusVR and seems to have overcome some of these problems. Hopefully it will open up new ideas and concepts in things like faith and theology as well as in film theory.

    *Yes, you have correctly discerned a Depeche Mode pun.


    Saturday, June 29, 2019

    2015's French Jesus Film - Histoire de Judas

    I know I will have heard the name of this film - Histoire de Judas - but I'm only just wising up to its existence. Shot in 2015 it's a French production, but apparently filmed in one of the Berber parts of Algeria. As I say, I've not really heard much about this, let alone seen it, and there's not a great deal about it on IMDb. I do know, however, that long-time Jesus films scholar Reinhold Zwick is preparing something on it, though we will have to wait a couple of years to get to read it.
    There is however, a nice write up of the film and director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's work in general by Dan Sallitt. Sallitt introduced the film when it played in New York in 2016. Ameur-Zaïmeche was born in Algeria and most of the cast and crew seem to have similar origins. There are a couple of other reviews of it at MUBI, as well as one from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat who I've crossed paths with before. MUBI also reveal that it was the winner of the Ecumenical Jury prize at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.

    In addition, various sites have a short trailer which provides a number of shots. The most interesting of these is what looks to be a triumphal entry scene, only one where Jesus is carrying a donkey foal, rather than the other way round. A major element of the story is the redemption of the Judas character and there seems to be an element of the Judas as a buddy element of Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ.

    Sallitt's review provides the most interesting details however
    One interesting addition that can perhaps be mentioned without spoiling the film is the important character of the madman who impersonates Jesus and functions in the film as his double, and who eventually is the focus of a emotional scene on the site of the crucifixion.
    This sounds a little like Philip Pullman's book "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" though not having read it or seen the film I'm hardly in a place to comment. I'll try and dig this one out and report back.

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    Saturday, June 15, 2019

    Per amore solo per amore (1993)

    Giovanni Veronesi's Per amore, solo per amore (For Love, Only for Love, 1993) is probably best known for featuring a young Penelope Cruz as the Virgin Mary. Yet Cruz is not the only actress to play Mary in the film as it starts while she is barely more than a toddler. This enables the film to focus more on Mary and Joseph than about Jesus, per se, whilst deftly avoiding the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception. Nevertheless, it is the film's portrayal of Joseph that has drawn accusations of blasphemy, though it hardly faced the degree of outrage that films such as Hail Mary (1985) and Last Temptation of Christ (1988) experienced.

    Whilst Maria/Mary starts the film as a little girl, Giuseppe/Joseph is already in his thirties. It's often said that Mary was quite possibly only around thirteen at the time Jesus was conceived. In contrast, Roman Catholic tradition, seeking to uphold belief in Mary's perpetual virginity despite the Bible talking about Jesus's brothers and sisters, has often argued that before his betrothal to Mary, Joseph had already been married, fathered children and been widowed, making him already well into adulthood. Whilst the idea of a middle aged man marrying a thirteen year old seems uncomfortable to us, this has been culturally acceptable in many cultures over the centuries. Personally speaking that makes me uncomfortable enough, and by portraying much as significantly young still when she first meets and is, in some way attracted to Joseph only increases the unease.

    The area of contention is more concerning Joseph's behaviour at the start of the film. When he encounters a thief, Socrates, stealing his water, he initially reacts threateningly, but then takes him in, and the two become life-long friends. Shortly afterwards, Joseph arrives in the village during a stoning, shot, initially, rather strikingly, with a point of view shot from the victim's perspective. In addition to linking with the story of Joseph's son preventing such a stoning later in his life, this device strongly places the viewer on the side of the victim, such that even though she dies, Joseph's attempts at intervention clearly marks him as on the same (moral) side as the audience.

    Shortly afterwards, however, other aspects of Joseph character begin to be revealed. He instantly strikes up a friendship with the young Mary for example, but he also repeatedly visits a prostitute in the village and gets drunk, behaviour in sharp contrast with his traditional image of moral uprightness. Joseph's liberalism clashes with that of the local religious leader, Cleofa, who, in the clumsy assignment of modern categories has a more culturally conservative perspective. It is he who upholds the mob's right to stone an adulteress, yet he also opposes Joseph's behaviour. In an early twist (it's been 25+ years) it turns out that Cleofa is Mary's father, setting the stage nicely for changing attitudes as both men move more towards the positive middle ground between them..

    These establishing scenes occupy the first third of the film, and the film then changes gear as the we leap forward in time and Cruz is introduced as Maria for the first time. It's has clearly been a while since they have seen each other and the wordless alternating point of view one-shots as they are reunited suggest the two simultaneously falling for each other at 'first' sight. There's a lengthy working-out of these feelings however including, Joseph chasing through back streets just to catch another glimpse of Mary, an unusual communal gathering that seems part way between a speed-dating event and a meat market and Joseph wrestling with another would-be suitor of Mary's until he passes out. Eventually, though Joseph makes a big romantic proposal, she accepts, and then he and Mary's father come to an agreement over her dowry

    But then Mary leaves town suddenly and unexpectedly. Because this film is from Joseph's point of view both he and the audience are left in the dark. It gradually occurs to us what has happened because we know the story, but Joseph knows nothing until Mary's father arrives at Joseph's house one night to return the bride-price. Joseph is distraught. What's interesting that we never see the annunciation, with or without an angel, but neither does anyone seem to blame Joseph for the pregnancy (though I might have missed something in the Italian). Eventually, after Joseph decides to continue with the marriage Mary tells him about the message from the angel, but we only experience it as he does. We the audience have to take her word for it just as he does. Just as he's getting used to that he find out that they will also not be consummating the marriage. This is also worked out very much of his point of view. We witness his desire for his wife, and him struggling to come to terms with that. More drunkenness.

    By the time it comes to the biblical part of the story in the final third, the film has reconciled itself to a more conventional ending. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting flourishes. For a start, Socrates accompanies Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. There's also a moment when the three of them encounter crucifixions on the road to Bethlehem, with people stoning those on the crosses. This pairs with the earlier stoning scene and of course the future crucifixion of Mary and Joseph's son and perhaps highlights the link between the people attempting to stone women also being complicit in Jesus's death at the hands of the Romans.

    Another unusual touch is the location for the birth, which takes place under a natural shelter/open cave rather than in a more 'conventional' stable. In particular it's notable that there is no visits from shepherds or wise men, but a sizeable crowd do arrive to gaze at the new baby. And then the family move on with the film mainly having finished.

    First, however, there's a final epilogue, which the film changes to eight years later (from the twelve in P.F.Campanile's source novel). Mary and Joseph and his old friend Socrates are reunited just as Joseph's life is coming to an end. There's a final conversation between the two men, most of which was lost on me, but what is significant is that we see, more or less simultaneously, Socrates washing Jesus' feet, and Mary's feet being washed by her, now, eight year old son. I think there's perhaps an implication here that whilst Joseph has not witnessed angels as Mary has, that nevertheless his own silent guardian (God-figure?) has been with him all along. Certainly this explains how it is that Socrates provides the film's voice over, even though he loses the power of speech very early in the film.

    It's frustrating for me that my listening skills in Italian are still rather poor because I'm fairly sure there is plenty that I am missing. What's clear however is that the film attempts to go beyond the rather limited character of Joseph we find in the Gospels (where he is not much more than a re-embodiment of his dream-responsive, Old Testament namesake) and indeed the saint of church tradition. Whilst some will object to the more unholy elements of that portrayal it's nevertheless an interesting attempt to meld some of the things we do know about that culture with modern notions of love, morality and faithfulness. It avoids being twee without feeling the need to be gritty and there are some nice shots of the Tunisian desert which make the most of the advantages of the widescreen aspect ratio.

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    Tuesday, June 11, 2019

    A Child Called Jesus (1987)

    To those of us used to modern biographies, the paucity of information about the first thirty or so years of Jesus' life seems rather strange. Only half the gospels even mention his birth, and only one mentions any incident that happens to him between infancy and the start of his ministry. At least some of our ancestors shared our bemusement at this. Additional, non-canonical writings spring up in the following centuries such as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas or the Protevangelium of James which different parts of the church treat with varying level of respect or scepticism.

    It's proved a more fertile subject for recent artists too. In the US, 2016's The Young Messiah was itself an adaptation of Anne Rice's earlier "Christ the Lord" series of novels, whilst other films such as Jesus (1999) and La sacra famiglia (The Holy Family, 2006) have also sought to fill some of these puzzling silences.

    Perhaps the most significant of the 'recent' films to explore this period in Jesus' life is the 1987 mini-series A Child Called Jesus (Un bambino nome Gesù). An Italian and American co-production it follows a common practice of dubbing sound back onto the visual footage back in the studio, meaning the American version was dubbed, and not particularly brilliantly. It makes it hard to find a version in better (but still not perfectly) dubbed Italian with subtitles.

    The film starts dramatically in Bethlehem, moments before Herod's soldiers arrive. The film's first words are literally Joseph being told to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, and in following scene we see an almost distressing pallid Herod being dipped into and out of a huge bath of Arabian mud, fearing the prophecy from Micah 5:2 about a ruler coming from Bethlehem, despite the slaughter he has carried out seeking to prevent it.

    There's a jump forward seven years, but whereas Young Messiah chose around this time to send Jesus and his parents back from Egypt to Galilee, here we find that they have not yet even properly reached Egypt yet, instead they have built a new life in a town on the border between Egypt and what a subtitle calls "Palestine". Director Franco Rossi (who also directed RAI's version of Quo Vadis? two years earlier) captures the uneasy feel of a border town, not least in a scene where a rebel zealot seems to be grooming child soldiers to fight the Romans).

    The comparatively safe life Jesus' family have found there though is about to come to an end, however. Unfortunately a fictional character called Sefir (though he sometimes calls himself Nathan Ben Joab) is pleased to have finally tracked them down. Sefir, who is played by Pierre Clémenti, who once had the role of Jesus himself in Philippe Garrel's Le lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed, 1969), claims variously to be Syrian, or from Qumran, or perhaps to have been one of the original battalion of soldiers that Herod dispatched to Bethlehem.

    Whatever his origins, he is determined to catch up with Jesus and his parents and finish what he started 7 years ago. Firstly he builds an alliance with a Roman commander called Titus Rufus. Then he employs a killer called Chela, who turns up dead when his attempt to bury Jesus under an avalanche of rock fails. Jesus, it is implied, only survives because of his mother's desperate prayers for him. Sefir tries to blame Joseph, but I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that this isn't true. For Joseph this is the clear sign of the need for decisive action. Despite recently accepting a lucrative contract making some benches for the local synagogue, he decides to take his family properly into Egypt, to Alexandria.

    It's around this point that we begin to see the first of a number of surprising flashes forward to events during Jesus' ministry. Though it's a little unclear at first as to what exactly Jesus is witnessing these echoes from the future, it gradually that he is experiencing these visions, even if he doesn't know that he himself is the character appearing in them. The first time it's Jesus' question to the disciples "Who do you say that I am"?, but later we will get flashes of his healing Jairus' daughter, the miraculous catch of fish, the Wedding at Cana, Gethsemane and finally his burial. There are also a few indications that some of his later teaching imagery was picked up during his childhood (when a shepherd tells him of his willingness to leave the 99 sheep to find the lost one, for example).

    The other element of Jesus ministry that is foreshadowed here is his supposed rejection of some of the established areas of Jewish practice. At one point surprised at the complexities of lighting a lamp in the correct way he says "If lighting a lamp is complicated it would be easier if people would sit under the moon". Shortly afterwards we see him sizing up a money-changer, as if already wise to the possibility that he might be shortchanging his customers. Most strikingly, when Joseph suggests buying a dove to sacrifice in the temple Jesus objects, saying "but doesn't Almighty God prefer to hear his birds alive, greeting the morning?" What's clear is that Jesus is a strongly opinionated child, who, at least initially, his mother is finds a little troublesome. Gradually through the course of the film she stops chiding him and starts listening and respecting him.

    Much of this could be seen as anti-Judaism, yet the film is very clear about Jesus' Jewishness. As well as constantly showing Jesus, Joseph and Mary in and out of synagogues and temples, essential connections between his family and the other Jews are made in every community they encounter. At one point we see a Jewish religious meeting and witness a reading of the Ecclesiastes 3 passage about the passing of time. Particularly surprising is the scenes where the Holy Family join in with the Feast of the Tabernacles.

    In addition to portraying various Jewish rituals, it also evokes some early Christian, but not biblical, texts as well, most notably an incident found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where Jesus creates a bird out of the clay. It's not Jesus' only miracle, however, in another scene, towards the end of the film where Jesus himself is just starting to become aware of his powers, we see him heal a female leper. There's even a suggestion that after Jesus and Mary have been separated from Joseph, after he is thought to have been killed in a fire, that Jesus is involved in reuniting them.

    If the dubbing is the worst element of the film then its visuals are certainly the best, even on the somewhat blurry/grainy copy on DVD. Rossi's camera frames the natural beauty of the locations beautifully, even in its native narrowscreen. It helps of course using some of the same locations as Rossellini used in Il Messia (1975).

    Whilst his interiors are a little less striking there are still some nice looking shots, not least the views of the desert and the film's stunning visual climax. But Rossi also utilises several nice motifs such as using background objects to create halos at various points. Another of his motifs is framing eyes behind/through wooden lattices. This device is used several times, especially of Mary. It's something that could be interpreted almost romantically, an observation my friend Peter Chattaway makes regarding similar framing in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

    However, it's notable that eyes are mentioned a few other times as well. One particularly notable incident hears one of the adults asks Jesus not to look at him with his "puppy dog eyes". In some ways I can't help but wonder if this is a retort to another Italian Jesus-film-maker called Franco. Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) was famous for Robert Powell's azure, unblinking eyes. Here Rossi voices the concern that eyes can have influential power, though it also enables those feeling its pull to escape them. Perhaps most significant, given the prevalence of eyes in this film are the only words I recall the boy Jesus speaking that are recognisable from the Gospels. Towards the end of the film, Jesus speaks from Matt 6:22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light".

    Ultimately, of course, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are all united and end up back in Nazareth. That's not so much a spoiler as to say simply that whilst the film is almost entirely invention, it does not contradict the specific things the Bible does say about Jesus' childhood. Jesus and his family return home with plenty of time before Jesus gets lost in Jerusalem. It must have been tempting to include that story in this film, but it's to the film's credit that it has strong enough convictions about what it is trying to do that it avoids it. It's perhaps a little overlong and you have to put up with the dubbing, but it poses some interesting questions and serves up some great images as well.

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    Tuesday, May 28, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 6

    Peter Bondanella's "Italian Cinema" is the standard set text for the subject in the English language, as evidenced not only by the multiple copies in the university library, but also by the fact that it is now into its fifth version. The book was originally published in 1983 as "Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present", with revised editions occurring at regular intervals until 2009 when it was significantly expanded and retitled simply "A History of Italian Cinema". The edition numbering went back to one and chapters covering the silent and fascist periods were added to the start of the book, as were several others throughout, including one on the "Sword and Sandal Epic". A 'second' (i.e. fifth) edition of the work was published in 2017. My budget doesn't stretch that far however, so I only own the third edition, which was subtitled "From Neorealism to the Present". However, since the relevant passage from the latest edition is available via Amazon's "look inside" feature, I'll be quoting from both. They are broadly the same (though the relevant passage starts much later at p.289), but there are a couple of choice variations which allows me to pick which I prefer.

    One such variation occurs in the opening sections. The older version more or less begins with "Pasolini's works reflect a unique and idiosyncratic combination of Gramscian Marxism and linguistic theory" (2013: 178) whereas the current version notes how Pasolini's five films from the early to mid sixties "all build upon neorealist tradition but embody a very different style of filmmaking, one indebted far more to Marxist ideology and Pasolini's own eccentric theories abut the lower classes in Italy than to the ideas contained in the neorealist classics" (2017: 178-9). That two fantastic summations for the price (!) of one, both of which fit Il vangelo secondo Matteo like a glove.

    Bondanella then goes on to give a broader introduction to Gramsci which I think readers will find useful.
    "Modifying the traditional Marxist view that economic conditions directly determine ideas, Gramsci offered his concept of cultural 'hegemony': social classes exercise hegemony over other classes first through the private institutions of civil society(schools, churches, journals, films, books) rather than through those of political society, and they more often obtain this hegemony through reason and common consent than through force. In order for the Communist Party to become a ruling class, the working class it represented would first have to establish its legitimacy as a dominant group by winning cultural hegemony within Italian culture." (2003: 178)
    As discussed in part 4 which looked at Marcia Landy's work, "Gramsci was especially interested in the southern peasants of Italy" (2003: 179). Pasolini uses the term 'sub-proletariat' to "underline their agrarian and preindustrial origins" in contrast to industrial workers in the North (2003: 179). Il vangelo "reflects Pasolini's fascination with this almost unknown stratum of Italian society" in many ways their appearance is much more notable and striking than in most Jesus films (2003: 179).

    Bondanella then goes on to examine Pasolini's own writings on cinema theory which he considers "one of the most original contributions to film theory in Italy" (2017: 290). Again, I'll quote at length.
    "His basic contention was that the cinema expressed reality with reality itself - an idea certainly born of neorealist cinema - and not with separate semiotic codes, symbols, allegories, or metaphors. Furthermore, Pasolini claimed that film's reproduction of physical reality was essentially a poetic and metonymic operation. The poetry of the cinema conserves not only reality's poetry but also its mysterious, sacred nature, and in its most expressive moments, film is both realistic and antinaturalistic. (2017: 290)
    At the risk of committing academic suicide, I'm not sure I fully grasp everything that Bondanella is saying here, but with Il vangelo we can appreciate how in the way it both does and does not represent the reality of the events of the Gospels it somehow offers something more transcendent.

    Whilst it is clear that, inevitably, Pasolini had been greatly influenced by neorealism, as was noted in part 5 of this series, he was also aware of its limitations. In particular he "rejected the tendency towards naturalism present in some neorealist styles" (2017: 291). This is particularly interesting with respect to due to Il vangelo since Bondanella considers that this rejection of certain aspect of neorealism is due to "his preference for the religious and sacred approach to reality" (2017: 291). For Bondanella, Il vangelo and Pasolini's other early sixties films "pay homage to neorealist style yet also assimilate it, rejecting some aspects of it in order to create a highly personal style with a very different vision of the world" (2017: 291).

    Pasolini described himself as a "pasticheur" mixing "the most disparate stylistic material" (Stack, 28), and Bondanella describes how he does this "in unusual combinations", for example juxtaposing "the most sublime examples of official 'high' culture with the humblest elements from 'low,' or popular culture" (2017: 291). For example, in Il vangelo Bondanella notes how the "faces of subproletarian characters evoke scenes from early Renaissance masters" (2017: 291). This tendency for pastiche becomes most pronounced in the last film of the 'series', 1966's Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows), though it is also very apparent in La Ricotta where the mix of kitsch colour footage (evoking historical artworks) clashes with Pasolini's own, preferred (at this stage) black and white footage, as well as with trick photography such as the sections of the film featuring sped up footage. Bondanella's comments on Uccellacci e uccellini later on note the part of the film where the crow - who Bondanella considers "functions as Pasolini's alter-ego) - exclaims "The age of Brecht and Rossellini is finished" (2003, 184).

    Pasolini himself often used the terms "contamination and mixture" to describe his use of pastiche (Stack, 28) which implies both a similarity and a difference between them. Whereas the terms pastiche and mixture suggest no single elements is dominant, "contamination" suggest an overall material with other, somewhat opposite materials introduced to radically alter its character. With Il vangelo Bondanella notes how Pasolini is "'contaminating' the traditional biography of Christ with the epical-religious qualities he believes the Italian subproletariat retains" (2003: 182). This perhaps goes someway to explaining Pasolini's switch during the initial phases of filming from the "reverential" style he used in Accatone to the more "varied" style he uses here (Stack, 84). Pasolini contaminates Matthew's Gospel with the various analogies to 'modern' day Southern Italy. This explains his choices in terms of locations, faces, music and costumes. Bondanella sums this up nicely:
    "Herod's soldiers dress as if they were fascist thugs; Roman soldiers wear costumes that resemble those worn by the Italian police; the flight of Joseph and Mary into Egypt recalls photographs of civilians fleeing over the Pyrenees after Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War."
    Bondanella makes some nice comments on the film's use of the camera as well. "Nothing about The Gospel is more striking than its editing and sense of rhythm, for it is with a continuous process of rapid cutting and the juxtaposition of often jarring images that Pasolini forces us to experience the life of Christ through a novel perspective." (2003, 182) Calling Pasolini's Christ "an almost demonic and relentlessly dynamic figure" he notes how Satan is "dressed in the manner of a priest" (2003, 183). "A number of different camera styles are employed, ranging from rapidly edited scenes using extremely brief shots to very long takes and to those photographed with a hand-held camera from a subjective perspective. (2003, 183-4).

    I had not originally planned to cover Bondanella's book. Given the breadth of it's scope I didn't expect it really to give me the depth I was after. Furthermore, the number of similar works that have sprung up in its slipstream (not least the BFI's "The Italian Cinema Book" (2013) which Bondanella edited) means that the sheer volume of works which one could consult are overwhelming. However, as the above will hopefully demonstrate, Bondanella is so insightful that in the end I had to resist the urge just to copy out the entire text. As it is I think I have just one more scholar to visit before trying to draw this discussion to a close.


    Bondanella, Peter (2003) Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York/ London: Continuum.

    Bondanella, Peter and Pacchioni, Federico (2017) A History of Italian Cinema. New York/ London: Bloomsbury.

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

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    Saturday, May 25, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 5

    I've been intrigued by P. Adams Sitney's book "Vital Crises in Italian Cinema" for some time, but only recently managed to find a copy to read the interest stems in a large part from the fact he looks at mainly at only a few directors, but those selected map nicely to my list of favourites. There are significant sections on Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Furthermore, the book's opening few pages (free for Kindle) start by discussing some of Pasolini's ideas, including this passage, quoted on page 1, which inspired the book's title:
    "Neorealism was not a regeneration; it was only a vital crisis, however excessively optimistic at the beginning...Now the sudden withering of neorealism is the necessary fate of an improvised, although necessary superstructure: it is the price for a lack of mature thought." (Fellini, 231)
    Now for a director who is often talked about as practising Neorealism, writing before the period in which he was supposedly making "neorealist" films (1957, though the essay does not seem to have been published until 1965 alongside Fellini's script for the film), this is a fairly significant criticism. However, as I mentioned in the opening article in this series, the neorealist movement was actually fairly short lived. Whilst it's influence undoubtedly lived on, and it's influence is clearly visible in the films Pasolini made in the early 1960s, it was mainly limited to the decade following the end of the Second World War. Certainly, the above quote suggests that it was unlikely that Pasolini would then go on to make a series of films that he would consider to be neorealist. Indeed after some other initial comments, Sitney devotes the final part of his introduction to a more in-depth look at Pasolini's Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1966) which Sitney describes as "an elegaic essay on the sociology and iconography of neorealism" (15).

    Before that, however, he makes a number of interesting comments about Pasolini. Firstly he praises "his recognition of continuity between filmic iconography and that of the history of painting (which he studied under Roberto Longhi), and his locating a context for ambitious cinema in contemporary literary phenomena)" (11). Clearly this is particularly relevant for Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel of Matthew, 1964) which deals with a subject that is not only a literary adaptation - and one that largely limits itself to the words from one particular literary source - but also a subject that has been central to the history of painting. Indeed, shortly afterwards Sitney is discussing the iconography of Italian cinema and notes "By far the largest pool of such iconographic images have their source in the painterly tradition of Italy. The conventional visual code of the Church prescribed the representation of Christ and the narrative events of the Gospels" (12). Sitney, then, appears to agree with Marcia Landy (see part 4) that Pasolini does reference historical artworks on the subject. Furthermore, Sitney argues Pasolini's referencing of these historical works is made with a specific intention in mind, to point to the way that the iconography of Italian cinema is in "continuity" with historic paintings and other works.

    This is something that Sitney views as inevitable with Italian film in particular. He notes how such "icongraphical representation so permeates Italian life that it is not surprising to find it central to narrative cinema" (12). In looking for contrasts between Italian Jesus films and their American counterparts this is a key observation: Italian culture is soaked in a biblical iconography to an extent that quite unlike, and indeed beyond, that of the United States.

    Sadly, Il vangelo barely gets discussed at all. What Sitney does do, however, is highlight the centrality of Christian iconography in his other major films of the time, specifically Uccellacci e uccellini, Accatone (1961) Mamma Roma (1962) and La Ricotta (1963). Indeed Sitney notes how "Pasolini’s obsession with the via crucis dominates all his early black and white films" (172). Clearly, in certain ways, Il vangelo is the culmination of this. Crucially, however, "this obsession is not a measure of his piety, but almost the reverse, that is, the ground from which he argues with the church and with the Italian tradition, from the perspective of a self-proclaimed 'heretic' or...a prophetic rebel (172).

    This, I think, is a crucial point and again one that is sometimes overlooked in discussion of Il vangelo, no doubt because of some of Pasolini's own statements which appear to the contrary. I think there is sufficient material on this to merit a piece on its, so I will pick this idea up in a future post.


    Fellini, Federico (1965) Le notti di Cabiria. Modena: Cappelli.

    Sitney, P. Adams (2013, 1995) Vital Crises in Italian Cinema: Iconography, Stylistics, Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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    Wednesday, May 22, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 4

    Having introduced this series in part 1, and covered the analysis of Zygmunt Barański and Naomi Greene in part 2 and part 3 respectively, I now want to turn to Marcia Landy and her work on Antonio Gramsci. In fact, Landy only deals specifically with Il vangelo secondo Matteo fairly briefly, but it comes a a crucial point in her broader argument, but it feels so fresh and insightful that it's worth going through the broader material that brings her to that point.

    Landy's book, simply titled "Italian Film", begins in the silent era and carries on through to the present day, but it takes a chapter, following on from one on neorealism (121-148) to look at "Gramsci and Italian Cinema" (149-180). She starts by quoting David Forgacs observation that even at the height of neorealism, "films by directors associate with neorealism in the widest sense accounted for...less than a third" (Forgacs 117), noting that whilst they were successful abroad they typically flopped at their domestic box office.

    Landy identifies five reasons for "their demise", "(a) the return of Hollywood products, (b) the ongoing intervention of the Roman Catholic Church through censorship, (c) the consolidation of power by the Christian Democrats, and (d) the economic encouragement and support for films that promoted 'positive' images of Italian life" finally (e) filmmakers questioning the "constraints of neorealism, seeking forms of cinematic expression that...addressed the advent of consumer society and reexamined the political role of culture (149). [letters in brackets mine]

    This newer movement of the late 1950s/early 1960s is particularly significant in this respect because "the preoccupation with cinematic style and the reintroduction of historical subjects became a source of investigation for many of the filmmakers who were, in greater or lesser ways, influenced by Gramscian thinking" (149). For Landy "no other figure's ideas play such a large role in the development of the post-World War II Italian cinema" than Gramsci and she specifically cites his influence on Pasolini amongst others (149).

    It must have been hard enough for Landy to condense Gramsci's ideas down to the few pages she does here, but it's even harder for me to boil it down to something even smaller now, but here goes. A key concerns for Gramsci was the transfer of knowledge and ideas and he was concerned to see that the 'subaltern' (lower working class/peasants) learnt the critical skills to move away from 'common sense' towards 'good sense' which was at the opposite end of the spectrum to folklore.

    He saw the need for the subaltern not only to see "institutional reform" (151), but also to develop its own intellectuals (as opposed to those propping up the state) and see cultural change that would empower subaltern groups not least by studying folklore and national myths. Having grown up in Sardinia Gramsci was particularly concerned with the tension between the industrial North and the rural south, noting the lack of "unity between the workers in the North and the peasants in the South" (152).

    The role of intellectuals is particularly interesting as those aligning with the state were often "perpetuating the status quo and obstructing the creation of new intellectual strata and hence new social forms" (152).

    For me (and not necessarily Landy), this gives a new angle on Pasolini's portrayal of the pharisees and teachers of the law who are portrayed as much as intellectuals as anything else in Il vangelo. Certainly they prop up Rome (the status quo) but their intentions are not necessarily bad. And of course, many of the intellectuals in the film are played by Pasolini's friends, a level of self examination on a par with Orson Welles' damning portrayal of the director in La ricotta (1963).

    Whilst Pasolini's Jesus is in many ways portrayed as subaltern, in many ways he is distinct from the peasants amongst whom he spends his time. This is partly because of his good looks and cleaner appearance, but also, as noted in the third entry in this series, because of the way Pasolini's camera isolates him from them. So Jesus can be read as either an intellectual who has arisen from the subaltern, or perhaps as a Gramsci/prophet type figure, apart from the ordinary people, but seeking to raise up intellectuals to rethink and to challenge their myths and folklore.

    For the Italians, particularly those from the South at the time the film was made, a key element in their national myth and folklore was the Risorgimento (unification) of the country under Garibaldi. Landy discusses Visconti's Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) which I have seen, but don't recall a great deal of, and also Blasetti's 1860 (1934), which I have not, but it leads me to think of another Garibaldi film which strangely Landy does not cover given the discussion of it in the context of neorealism (perhaps because of a lack of availability in 2000 when she was writing), Rossellini's Viva l'Italia! (1961). For me, the abiding image of this film, released only a few years before Pasolini's Il vangelo, is that of Garibaldi charging round the countryside in his revolutionary zeal. Is there a parallel to be drawn with Pasolini's similarly fast-paced protagonist? Now I've noticed it, I'm finding it hard to ignore.

    Landy notes how films such as Il gattopardo which are set in the past often "pick up the Gramscian concern to analyze the persistence of past forms of belief and action in the present" (153). Whilst this is not written with Il vangelo in mind, it is not difficult to see how it also applies. For Pasolini the myth defining event of the past he is concerned with in Il vangelo is not as recent as the Risorgimento, or the overthrow of Mussolini, but nonetheless influential on Italian society at the time he was making it, and his "analogical approach" to the Gospel of Matthew (Stack, 82).

    Having examined various other filmmakers, Landy arrives at Pasolini by saying his cinema "offers a perspective on modernity and capitalism from the vantage point of subaltern groups" (173). She notes however that he was trying to re-contextualise Gramsci's ideas in a new economic, political and cultural context, but also his "ongoing preoccupation with...relations between high and popular culture" (173). "His complex portrait of the world in his writing and films entailed mixing styles, disrupting expectations, challenging clichés, and offending audiences" (173-4). Whereas neorealism tended to assume its images could only be interpreted one way, Pasolini "drives a wedge of difference into neorealist plenitude. Accatone makes the image the site of an ambivalent decoding." (Viano 71)

    Landy's point is that as with Gramsci, "in Pasolini, one must find the difference in the usual assumptions of commonality and sameness" (174, emphasis mine). As a result "there are no unified narratives in his films, just different histories, affects, beliefs, and actions - fragments of a world torn from familiar contexts. There is...a blurring of the lines between fiction and 'the real', a preoccupation with theatricality,...allusions to other works of art,...the constructed, not essential and absolute, nature of the image" (175). "They adhere to the Gramscian notion of...the importance of demystifying common sense, cliché, and habituation" (175) Note here the use of "common sense" is that as defined above, the midpoint between folklore and good sense. To a certain extent this turns the understanding of Il vangelo as reverent on its head. The aim is to present a gospel of the people, demystified, so that the subaltern class will re-examine the role of the religious faith in Italian society and see how its current position is holding them as a group, back.

    Landy's specific discussion of Il vangelo is only around 400 words and follows on from her discussion of Accatone and she notes that "the film again creates a portrait that conforms to Gramsci's emphasis on questions of leadership and the role of intellectuals" (178). She disagrees however with Greene's claim that the film "scrupulously avoids the traditional iconography and cultural echoes" (Greene, 74). Indeed Landy finds that it ties episodes from the Gospels "to images of Renaissance painting..., earlier cinematic versions of the life of Christ, and the Sicilian landscape" (178). The point of this is "to link the past to contemporary history...The critical and political role of religion as the common sense of subaltern groups is central" (178).

    Her conclusion, though, is that "Il vangelo seems to offer a last gasp in his films of the Gramscian emphasis on the need to create 'a national-popular culture'" his later films would "express an increasing discomfort with Gramscian conceptions of cultural politics" (180).


    Forgacs, David (1990) Italian Culture in the Industrial Era: Cultural Industries, Politics, and the Public. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Greene, Naomi (1990) Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Landy, Marcia (2000) Italian Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

    Viao, Maurizio (1993) A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini's Film Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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    Saturday, May 18, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 3

    In my previous post in this series I reviewed Barański's 1999 essay "The Texts of Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo". Here I want to look at another key work on the subject, Naomi Greene's chapter "The End of Ideology" from her book "Pier Paolo Pasolini : Cinema as Heresy". Originally published in 1990, three years before even Babington and Evans' "Biblical Epics", it's a text that many of those writing about Jesus on Film turn to. Of the many books about Pasolini, not only is it relatively old, but its title also suggests that Il vangelo will be discussed at length. (Where quote only receives page numbers it is Greene's book to which I am referring.)

    That said, however, the book's main coverage is barely over ten pages (70-80), though there is also several pages of discussion (60-67) on La ricotta (1962), Pasolini's contribution to the collaborative RoGoPaG, which I learn from Greene's book is also known as Laviomoci il cervello (Lets Talk About the Brain). For Greene the two works are very much linked, and she also notes how La ricotta is "Considered one of the high points of Pasolini's cinema" (60). There is also some discussion of Sopraluoghi in Palestina (On the Scene in Palestine, 1964) which she calls "virtually a cinematic afterthought" (70).

    Greene starts by looking at the (potential) tension between those reading the film from a Marxist perspective and those coming it from a Catholic perspective. In general Pasolini managed to appease many of those from both camps, though there were some detractors from his fellow Marxists. In particular Pasolini's depictions of several miracles caused some consternation. Quoting Pasolini's extended 'interview' with Jean Duflot, Greene notes how Pasolini:
    ...defended his portrayal of the supernatural on the grounds that what he called the 'subjective reality' of miracles exists. 'It exists,' he said, 'for the peasants of Southern Italy, as it existed for those in Palestine. Miracles are the innocent and naive explanation of the real mystery which lives in man, of the power hidden within him.' And it was precisely this 'subjective reality' that he sought to convey in Il Vangelo where, he maintained, the life of Christ is seen through the eyes of a 'believer'."
    (Greene 73-74) - with quotations from "Entretiens avec Pier Paolo Pasolini" Duflot (1970)
    Greene, however, is unconvinced that this approach works. For one thing, she suggests that the depiction "was given added credibility by the very fact of being seen. No literary description found in the Gospels can compete with a filmic sequence where Christ walks calmly upon the water or cures lepers of their sores." (73)

    The importance of the images also comes into the following section where Greene claims Pasolini "scrupulously avoids the traditional iconography and cultural echoes" aside from "the costumes
    of the Pharisees and the Roman soldiers, which evoke a specific painter, Piero della Francesca" though she also quotes Pasolini's citation of Duccio and Mantegna (74). Other writers have found a number of other painterly influences, and this raises a few interesting points, particularly with respect to Barański's point that what Pasolini says is not always backed up by the film itself, or indeed with other points he himself has made. For one thing Pasolini has described the film as not being so much as about Jesus, but as about Jesus plus 2000 years of Christian interpretation (Stack 91). (For more on Pasolini's references to paintings see this anonymous blog post). On the other hand, however, Pasolini's film is clearly trying to distance itself from the overall look and feel of renaissance art, and indeed films that have tried to reproduce it such as DeMille's The King of Kings (1927) or The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

    Of course, films such as The King of Kings, Ray's 1961 'remake' and the biblical epics of the 1950s were very much part of what Pasolini was targeting in La Ricotta (1963). Greene picks this up noting how the two films "work against traditional representations of Biblical scenes" even so "they do so in almost opposing ways" (75). She points out how in essence whereas "La ricotta reproduces familiar iconography only implicitly to denounce its falsity and distance from reality; Il Vangelo deliberately, and consistently, rejects such iconography" (75). Whereas his earlier films not adapting religious stories adopted elements of Christian iconography, here, "where the subject is mythic and epic" he uses a a more realistic approach (75). Greene nicely describes some of the key, iconoclastic depictions, which include Mary's depiction as a "bewildered young peasant woman" and Salome not as "the erotic goddess of Hollywood films but a graceful, almost timid adolescent" (75).

    In the opening article of this series I mentioned Antonio Gramsci and Greene is one of those authors who discuss his influence on Pasolini. This starts before the section dealing with this film specifically, and is first voiced in a quotation from Pasolini's discussion with Sartre:
    "I have created a national-popular work in the Gramscian sense. Because the believer through whom I see Christ as the son of God is a humble Italian [un personnagio popolare italiano]... seeing the world through his eyes I came close to Gramsci's national-popular conception of art." (Cristo e il Marxismo)
    Pasolini's comments about the "subjective reality" of the miracles very much relate to this and, as is clear, his phrase here about the film being a "national-popular work" is straight from Gramsci. Particularly in Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks" he explores the idea of literature (and beyond) in which the author identifies with the people by sharing their needs and problems. Gramsci perceived a paucity of Italian literature from the subaltern classes (peasants/working class/sub-proletariat, loosely speaking) seeing literature from other nations (e.g. France) or the intellectual class (which he saw as distinct in Italian society) and longed for a literature that reflected that strata of Italian society. In the early sixties we can see how Pasolini attempts to create works of national-popular cinema through works such as Accatone (1961) Mamma Roma (1962) and, of course, Il vangelo.

    Greene returns to this phrase and Gramsci's influence throughout, though noting that Pasolini's faith in it began to disappear around the time of Hawks and Sparrows (1966). It's interesting, in this respect, how a number of "his intellectual friends play those in power" particularly in contrast to the ordinary people who play the more minor roles (176). In Il vangelo we can clearly see Pasolini's desire to bring subalterns to the fore and yet the films also represents something of a failure in this regard. Greene discusses a number of  critics who found fault with the portrayal of the ordinary people in the film calling them "lifeless" and "expressionless" (78). There's also a lengthy and damning quote from Sandro
    "a single scene in which a character from the crowd succeeds in resisting the absolute fierceness of the messiah, not a single frame in which one of them emerges from a perspective which flattens and crushes the multitudes into a sub-human homogeneity." (Petraglia, 61-62)
    Greene finds that in "several respects" such criticisms "are valid" (emphasis hers), finding "little doubt that Pasolini does indeed drain the people of life and vitality" (79). She find this partly due to the "silence of Christ's followers" in the source material and Pasolini's "fidelity" to it, but significantly due also to the way "Pasolini consistently isolates Christ through visual means", particularly the film's use of close-ups. The above image captures this well, Jesus in close up in the foreground with the people some distance behind him in the background.

    Greene's summary to this line of thought has been quoted a few times, but it bears repeating as it's a nice piece of writing and an essential counterpoint to much of the unqualified praise given to the film
    "Christ appears, in fact, as a kind of Biblical intellectual who, despite an intense desire to be 'organically' linked to the people, cannot breach the immeasurable gap between them. One is left to wonder how his mute and passive followers will be able to further his teachings once he himself is gone." (79)
    One final quote, that flows from the discussion of Gramsci and Pasolini's desire to make a "national-popular epic" is a quote from his interview by Marisa Rusconi. Discussing why he chose Matthew's Gospel rather than any of the other three he dispensed with the usual 'stuck-in-a-hotel-room-because-of-the-pope' story and talked about why he thought Matthew was the most suitable for his purposes. "Mark's seemed too crude, John's too mystical, and Luke's sentimental and bourgeois." (Rusconi, 16). It's an interesting, alternative perspective to the usual story and also a nice summary of the four gospels. That said it perhaps says more about each gospel's adaptability, rather than their inherent characteristics. I don't think Matthew's Gospel does a particularly good job of reflecting the lives of the sub-proletariat - either in Jesus' day or in Pasolini's. It's formal structuring and repeated citations seem to have a more scholarly angle. That said, many scholars consider it the oldest extant version of the hypothetical Q source which, according to the theory, underlies both Matthew and Luke. Whilst I'm not sure I buy the theory, the argument could be made that the 'Q' material has more of a Gramscian national-popular feel to it than either of the Gospels that contain it, or the gospels that would follow it.

    "Cristo e il Marxismo: Dialogo Pasolini-Sartre," (1964) L'Unita, December 22, p. 2

    Duflot, Jean (1970) Entretiens avec Pier Paolo Pasolini Paris: Pierre Belfond.

    Greene, Naomi (1990) Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Petraglia, Sandro (197) Pier Paolo Pasolini. Florence: Nuova Italia

    Rusconi, Marisa (1964) "4 Registri al magnetofono"  Sipario 222 (October) p.16

    Stack, Oswald (1969) Pasolini on Pasolini. London, Thames and Hudson/British Film Institute.

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