• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    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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