• 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


    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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