• 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


    Monday, December 30, 2019

    Sopralluoghi in Palestina per Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1965)
    (Scouting for Locations in Palestine for The Gospel of Matthew)

    Those who follow this blog regularly will know I've focused quite a bit on Pasolini's Il vangelo second Matteo (1964) this year, but one thing I'd never watched until today is the documentary he made around the time of the film's release concerning his trip to Palestine scouting for locations. I've heard various people discuss Sopralluoghi in Palestina per Il vangelo secondo Matteo (Scouting for Locations in Palestine for The Gospel of Matthew, 1965) but never actually seen it for myself.

    The documentary is one of a number of Pasolini's minor works that he produced around his five major early sixties films (Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta, Il vangelo secondo Matteo and Hawks and Sparrows) including La Rabbia (1963) and Comizi d'amore (1965) but it's also one of a series of films he made as part of the creative process for films set outside of Italy. In this case it's Palestine for his Jesus film, but around the same time he was exploring India (resulting in Appunti per un film sull'India [Notes for a film on India] eventually released in 1968) and later Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (Notes toward an African Orestes, 1970). Whilst neither of these latter films were actually made Pasolini did release these "making of" style films.

    The jist of the documentary, summarised a hundred times by those discussing Il vangelo is that Pasolini headed out to the Holy Land and found it disappointingly unsuitable for his purposes. Usually it's the modernisation which is cited, but, as it turns out this is far from the only factor. In addition to a film crew, Pasolini is typically accompanied by Don Andrea Carraro, "a Biblical scholar of the Catholic left group Pro Civitate Christiana" (Gordon 2012, 39) and Pasolini is struck by the differences between the two of them. He praises Don Andrea's "absolute, extreme mental order" notes their varying usage of the word 'spiritual'. "When you say 'spiritual' you mean, above all, religious, intimate and religious. For me 'spiritual' corresponds to aesthetics." Perhaps most significantly is Pasolini's observation that he "tended to see the world in Christ's times a little like what was before my eyes here. A rather wretched world, pastoral, archaic, shattered. While Don Andrea always tended to see even in the settings that surrounded Christ a certain dignity."

    The pair start out in the countryside near the Jordan river having found an exceptional panorama in the midst of a long drive through "modern, industrialised" countryside. They take in Mount Tabor ("similar to Soratte") and Lake Tiberias before arriving at Nazareth, "a landscape contaminated by the present." The concept of "contamination" is a regular one in Pasolini, something that had fewer negative connotations to his contemporaries, or indeed to himself later in his life.

    Interestingly when the pair visit the region near Capernaum, Pasolini is struck by "extreme smallness, the poverty, the humility of this place". Given how his final film ended up, it seems that this moment had a significant impact on his thinking. "As far as I am concerned", he concludes a little later, "I think I have completely transformed my imagination of the holy places. More than adapting the places to my mind's eye, I'll have to adapt my mind's eye to the places." Further on he is struck again "What most intrigues me is this panorama, that Christ should have chosen such an arid place so bare, so lacking in every amenity".

    But by now the negative factors of shooting in the region are starting to add up. The modernisation  / transformation of the landscape is important; but Pasolini also cites the lack of scenography and backdrops; and even the fact that it will be difficult to find extras since the people all have such stable employment. Later he complains that "either there is too much poverty...or too much colour...or else, it is excessively modern"

    The next stop - in a village of the Druse Arabs - provides both "a lovely moment", but Pasolini decides the faces of the residents are unsuitable because they "have not been touched by the preaching of Christ". It's here some of the worst of Pasolini comes through as he describes them as "pre-Christian faces, pagan, indifferent, happy, savage." These kind of racist attitudes to non-European people is all too common in these location scouting films, even though Pasolini is seemingly well-meaning he can be patronising or irrationally unobjective.

    This highlights one of the problems running throughout the entire enterprise, namely that neither Pasolini not Don Andrea really known what the Holy Land and its inhabitants looked like 2000 years earlier. The trees that now weep into the Jordan would not even have existed. Various forms of erosion, farming, war, climate change, conquests and land reclamation have all left the ancient landscape largely unknowable, and whilst more recent studies have determined more about the faces of our ancestors, it is not to the level that could be distinguishable in film based on their hearing, or otherwise, of a particular preacher. It's easier to imagine how today's landscape may differ from that of the 1800s, but beyond that is largely conjecture.

    The problem of modernisation is brought into sharper focus with Pasolini's visit to a Kibbutz at Baram, one of many which have "reshape(d) the landscape with absolute modernity". There he talks more to members of the collective, but Pasolini keeps his communist politics to himself. This passage feels a little out of step with the rest of the film so perhaps this is his way of drawing attention to it, but it's hard to tell whether his approval for communal values are outweighing his objections to the modernisation (which is inherent in these Kibbutzim).

    Beersheba follows and then Jerusalem, which Pasolini prefers to Nazarerth, calling it "grandiose" and finding something so "historically sublime in her appearance" that it "cannot but instil the film with a different stylistic identity". Most interestingly at this point (Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem) "Christ's
    preaching, till now solely religious... due to objectively historical events becomes a public and political fact as well as a religious one."

    From there they head to Bethlehem where Pasolini seems to finally admit defeat that he is not going to find "a village which has maintained its integrity through the millennia". "The biblical world appears" he sighs "but it resurfaces like wreckage".

    The film ends in the supposedly nearby location of the Ascension, and with the surprising closing words that the Ascension marks "the most sublime moment of the entire evangelical story: the moment in which Christ leaves us alone to search for him."

    Pasolini is often praised for being a pioneer and visionary, and this and his African and Indian films do seem to have paved the way for the making of documentaries which briefly appeared as extra features on DVD and Blu-ray discs, like them this was released after, rather than before, the main film. It seems likely that streaming may make films like these a thing of the past - at least in this format. Today researchers will typically bring this footage, perhaps just find it on YouTube first. Meanwhile any such visits of key cast or crew are more likely to form pre-publicity than appear afterwards. By today's standards the overall feel of Paolini's film feels like something shot on a phone, but then every so often there is a sublime moment, where the director sees a landscape that inspires him and his artistry shines through. His success with Il vangelo means that, for us too, the lands of the Bible are ever likely to strike us as we expect them to.

    Gordon, Robert S. C. (2012) "Pasolini as Jew" in Luca Di Blasi, Manuele Gragnolati, Christoph F. E. Holzhey (eds.) The Scandal of Self-contradiction: Pasolini's Multistable Subjectivities, Geographies, Traditions, Vienna/Berlin: Verlag Turia + Kant. pp.37-54.

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