• 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


    Sunday, March 26, 2023

    La ricotta (1963), revisited

    Sixteen years ago now I reviewed Pier Paolo Pasolini's 30-minute short La ricotta (1963), which was released as part of the anthology/portmateau film RoGoPaG. I've changed a lot since then, not least becuase now I've seen all of Pasolini's films – some of them multiple times – and read a lot and spoken about his movies as well. So I thought it was time to revisit this one, as I sat down to watch it in its entirety for the first time in a while.

    Multiple crucifixions
    The first thing that struck me was the multiple crucifixions we find here, all stacked up against one another. Most obviously we have the gaudy technicolor reconstruction of the film within a film – a close reproduction of Rosso Fiorentino's Mannerist "Deposizione dalla croce" [aka "Deposition of Volterra"] (1521) – but this is not the only depiction of the crucifixion in the film with the film, because the scene in which Stracci features stars a Jesus who looks significantly different (there's no long red hair for one thing). In another sense though, Stracci's death is also a crucifixion of sorts. He dies on the cross, perhaps even, one could argue, for the sins of the world, and the final line of dialogue from Welles's director, recalls the centurion at the foot of the cross. Stracci's own final lines are significant too.

    But there is another scene that functions as a crucifixion scene, that is not so widely talked about. as the crew set up one of the shoots for the crucifixion scene we witness Stracci and the actor playing Jesus. While they are lying, nailed to their crosses, on the ground, the camera looks "up" at them as if the shot is taken at from the foot of the cross. Like the rest of the cast and crew the Jesus-actor talks down to Stracci, and their dialogue could be easily construed as just that. However, on closer inspection there's more to it:

    I'm hungry. I'm hungry.
    Now I'm going to blaspheme.


    Just try it and see what i give you.

    A fine Christ you are. You think
    I've got no right to grumble?


    Suit yourself, but I won't take you
    into the Kingdom of Heaven.


    I could be okay in the
    Kingdom of the Earth.

    (The argument moves on to politics)

    This dialogue works as an ironic take on the text from Luke's Gospel. Instead of the thief humbling himself to beg a receptive and willing Jesus for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, we have an already humbled Stracci talking up his suitability for the kingdom. Meanwhile the Jesus actor is anything but the figure we find in Luke 23. Rather than be gracious and receptive he acts like a petty and mean-spirited gatekeeper.

    Sweary Mary
    Sixteen years I didn't know any Italian, but I started learning around 2013-4 and have been making slow progress since. Enough, at least, to spot the odd thing that you don't get from the subtitles. Here, for example, there's a scene where the actors are trying to capture the deposition from the cross, reproducing the exact poses of another Mannerist, Jacopo da Pontormo's "Deposizione" (1528). Pasolini has studied the history of art, and knew his Mannerism, so he would have know that "its adherents generally favored compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting".(1) So Pasolini makes a visual art-joke, demonstrating the "instability" of the composition by having the actors – who have been ordered to hold their poses still, rather than move and act – collapse after a while. This is rather unsurprising given the general messing around that has been occurring on set and taken to be typical of the attitudes that Pasolini seeks to highlight. Most of the actors laugh and see the funny side.

    One person, however, is not impressed. The film's major star, "Sonia, la 'Diva'" played by Laura Betti, is playing Mary, Jesus' mother. While her co-stars laugh-off the whole incident, she is incandescent with rage. Her voice though is not added to cacophony of sounds emanating from the cast at this point, which almost seems to add to her frustration. However, it's clear that one of the words she shouts several times is "basta", the Italian for "Enough!" only here it's probably a bit stronger in Italian than that literal translation. I can't lip read the rest, but I'd love to hear from anyone who can. I do wonder if this was the moment that was the tipping point for those who decided to press for Pasolini's prosecution (that said, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith says, in this piece, "that the real target of the prosecution was not La ricotta at all but the much talked about Gospel". In other words that this prosecution was a shot across Pasolini's bows.

    Accattone and Stracci
    This time around I was struck by the similarities between the title character (I won't say "hero") of Pasolini's debut feature Accattone (1961) and Stracci, the lead character here. Both characters have meaningful names. Accattone means "Beggar" or more colloquially ‘deadbeat’ or ‘grifter’. Stracci means "rags". The meanings of both resonate through their roles. While both are the lead characters, neither of them is a hero – not in any conventional sense at least – or even, really, an anti-hero.

    More importantly for Pasolini was that they were both representatives of the bottom layer of Italian society that he treasured so greatly. For Pasolini it was this strata of society that most opposed neo-capitalism and refused to play by its rules, and was also where the last remaining vestiges of the sacred could be found.

    Pasolini was hugely critical of bourgeois society, and the more I look into his work the more I am convinced he would have hated me and the majority of those who so value his films today. And this is perhaps why I find both Accattone and Stracci so difficult to sympathise with, certainly to understand their actions. Stracci is the more sympathetic. Selling a dog to buy food when you're starving is more understandable than grooming and then pimping out a young girl, but the way Stracci eats to such excess proudly refuses to make him a conventional tragic-hero and imbues the whole film with the sort of comic approach that Pasolini was going for.

    The actor playing Stracci, Mario Cipriani had appeared, uncredited in Accattone and Mamma Roma (1962) and would do so twice more, firstly in "La terra vista dalla luna" his contribution to another composite film Le streghe (The Witches, 1967), then in "Che cosa sono le nuvole?" in another joint film Caprice Italian Style (1968). Franco Citti, who played Accattone, would go on to become one of Pasolini's biggest collaborators, fronting a number of his movies throughout Pasolini's 14-year career.

    The cruelty
    Not unrelated to the above is the cast and crew's treatment of Stracci. This time around I was struck by how unrelentingly cruel it is and how it seems to be generated largely by class hatred. Stracci is never shown as being part of the group or having any form of social acceptance. Sonia's dog is welcome on site, and even catered for, but Stracci's family have to remain at a distance. Even when his costars appear, they smile wave and pass by like the opening characters from the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The scene where Stracci overeats to bursting point is particularly noticeable – everyone goads and bullies him into eating more and more, pitting the desperation of his hunger against his human dignity – but this behaviour occurs elsewhere. Once when Stracci is fixed to the cross, and mentions his hunger, a co-star offers him bites from his sandwich to taunt him before another man pours drink down his throat and he is mocked in every scene.

    I suspect this behaviour is not so much a call to the middle classes to improve their behaviour to other classes as it is to say to the sub-altern/proletarians that "this is how they will treat you if unrestrained"


    While it tends to be Il vangelo secondo Matteo, Teorema (Theorem, 1968) or Salò o le centoventi giornate di Sodoma (Salò or the 120 days of Sodom, 1975) that are Pasolini's most celebrated films, there's a very strong case for La ricotta being his best short film, and his greatest comedy. And while there were often strong objections to his work, and threats of prosecution, I believe it was the only time Pasolini was convicted for one of his films.

    Given its release came at a similar time to the start of the Vatican II Council I can't help but wonder if the timing was deliberately provocative, even for such a mild film by today's standards. Pasolini considered himself an atheist, but one who nevertheless realised the important and varying role the church played in Italian society in general. So while Il vangelo remains the more insightful film about the Gospels, La ricotta speaks with more insight and passion about the role of the Roman Catholic church at just the same time that the institution itself was undergoing major self-examination; and about Italian society in general and its often hypocritical attitudes to religion.

    1- Finocchio, Ross (2003) "Mannerism: Bronzino (1503–1572) and his Contemporaries", Department of European Paintings The Metropolitan Museum of Art website. Available online -  https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zino/hd_zino.htm

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