• 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


    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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