• 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 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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