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The New Italian Gospel: Pasolini and Christ, 1962 -1963

Andrew Key on Pier Paolo Pasolini's resetting of the life of Christ in the impoverished landscapes of Southern Italy, and his debt to the thought of Erich Auerbach. 

Andrew Key 2 April 2021

The New Italian Gospel: Pasolini and Christ, 1962 -1963

In September 1962, Pier Paolo Pasolini spent some time staying at the Cittadella, a Franciscan monastery and study centre in Assisi, after being invited to attend a seminar on the theme of “Cinema as a Spiritual Force in the Present.” Following the coronation of the relatively liberal-minded Pope John XXIII in 1958, the Catholic Church had begun to host cultural meetings with a view to forging stronger links with secular Italian culture and society. Such meetings even included the Marxists and Communists who had been threatened with excommunication by the previous pope, Pius XII.

Pasolini had been invited to a few of these events, but this was the first he deigned to attend. The seminar coincided with a visit to Assisi from the pope himself, whose presence meant that on its final day all the roads in the city were gridlocked. Pasolini found himself unable to leave Assisi and went back to his hotel room to wait for things to calm down. There, as one might expect, he found a copy of the Gospels, which he read “straight through … as though a novel.”  His reading of the New Testament immediately overshadowed his plans for other projects, and left him with a strong desire to make a film of Matthew’s Gospel: a faithful translation of the text, with no new literary flourishes or omissions; a work which would express what he saw as the sublime simplicity of the Gospels’ poetry.

The timing of Pasolini’s trip to Assisi and its attendant inspiration was fortuitous. He had recently completed a short film which would land him in legal difficulties, resulting in a conviction and a prison sentence of four months (ultimately suspended and then dismissed on appeal) for insulting the state religion. That summer, he had made La ricotta, a section in the anthology film Ro.Go.Pa.G (also featuring segments by Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ugo Gregoretti). Pasolini’s contribution—a vicious work of satire and social criticism, starring Orson Welles as a stand-in for the director and depicting behind-the-scenes chaos and hypocrisy on the set of a film about the crucifixion—was seized by the police on its opening night in Rome, 13 February 1963. La ricotta angered traditional Catholics for its irreverence towards Christian theology, as well as upsetting many on the left for its apparent contempt of the Italian people, dismissed as ‘illiterate masses.’

Despite the fact that the Vatican’s film censorship committee had not deemed the film blasphemous, Pasolini was sentenced under laws which had been introduced by the Fascist government in the 1930s. It would take several years before La ricotta saw any kind of release, and even then it was heavily censored. In the process, Pasolini inadvertently became a test case for legal responses to the changing attitudes towards freedom of expression in Italy in the 1960s, and a cause célèbre for the Italian Communist Party, who ran a fairly successful campaign based around anti-censorship in the general election that year.

Almost immediately following the seizure of La ricotta, Pasolini wrote to the Cittadella and announced his desire to make a film of Matthew’s Gospel. If he was going to be condemned as a blasphemer for his work, then through it he would find a way to make a film expressing what he saw as the enormous humanity of the story of Christ. He persuaded the church to fund the production, as well as a trip to Israel and Jordan to search for appropriate locations. Accompanied by a biblical scholar called Don Andrea Carraro, Pasolini spent a fortnight, from 27 June to 11 July 1963, touring the sites of the Holy Land. This trip was documented in a film, released as Sopralluoghi in Palestina (Location Hunting in Palestine), in which we see Pasolini and Don Andrea driving around the major locations of the Gospels: Nazareth, Gethsemane, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and so on.

Sopralluoghi in Palestina is an expression of Pasolini’s practical disappointment with his experience of the Biblical landscapes. He finds the newly-built sections of Israeli cities to be too modern to be acceptable for a film which seeks to represent the ‘great humility’ of the New Testament. He quickly decides that he would be incapable of finding extras who look as though they have not been touched by the twentieth century; only in a few brief encounters with the Arabic-speaking population does he find any faces he wants to film. But this practical disappointment also gives way to an aesthetic revelation for Pasolini: it is the very paltriness of the landscapes in which Christianity was founded—‘four barren hills and a lake’—that reveals to him the deep spiritual significance of the Gospels. He realises that, through an analogical approach to landscape, he can depict the terra sancta of Christianity anywhere that archaic cultural and geographical remnants still persevere in a form which resists exploitation by bourgeois society.

After his trip to Israel and Jordan, Pasolini decided to make his film in one of the poorest and least developed regions of Southern Italy: Matera. Infamous for the miserable cave-like dwellings which a number of residents still inhabited up to the middle of the twentieth century, Matera was also used as the setting for Carlo Levi’s 1945 memoir about internal exile under Mussolini’s government, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Levi, an anti-fascist doctor and writer from Turin, was sent to the region surrounding Matera in 1935, as enthusiasm for the Abyssinian War rose across the country. Levi’s book details his life among the peasant population, their openness and warmth in the face of extreme poverty, corruption, and economic failures. The book takes its title from a local saying: Christianity made it as far as Eboli (on the east coast of Italy, south of Naples), but never quite got as far inland as Matera. Levi’s book expressed Matera’s neglect by the Italian cultural and political hegemony for whom it was an internal colony, somewhere to be scorned and exploited. By making his film in Matera, Pasolini says that his Christ will not stop at Eboli but will embrace the poorest and most archaic region of Italy. His film, which would be released with the title Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew), embraces the archaic and backwards as oppositional forces which work against the modernity by which they have been ignored. 

Despite the difference in tone between them—one farcical, the other sombre—through watching La ricotta and Il vangelo… (as well as the intermediary Sopralluoghi…) together we can observe the development and crystallisation of Pasolini’s technique of radical analogy, as articulated through an admixture of diverse styles. Rather than simply attempt a ‘historically accurate’ adaptation of Matthew’s Gospel, Pasolini—as Noa Steimatsky has argued—employs a “heterogeneous stylistics—a deliberate mingling of Christian and other cultural references, of high and low voices, of everyday detail and a visionary outlook—that echoes the thematic contamination at the heart of the text.” This mingling appears in La ricotta’s combination of slapstick comedy, ’60s youth culture (the film opens with two men dancing the Twist), and Renaissance paintings—there are two tableaux vivants in La ricotta, reproducing sixteenth century paintings by Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo. In Il vangelo, it is legible in both the analogical use of landscape and the film’s soundtrack, which includes music by Odetta, Johann Sebastian Bach, Blind Willie Johnson and the Missa Luba—a Congolese setting of the High Mass.

Pasolini’s deployment of heterogenous styles to depict the story of Matthew’s Gospel might seem an idiosyncratic approach, but it is a literary strategy which is itself inherent in the foundational texts of Christianity—at least according to Erich Auerbach. Pasolini had read Mimesis while on location with Federico Fellini making Le notti di Cabiria in 1957, shortly after Auerbach’s text was translated into Italian. In the second chapter of his book, Auerbach compares the Latin prose of Petronius and Tacitus to the text of Mark’s Gospel, focusing in particular on the depiction of the Denial of Peter. Auerbach writes that the mingling of styles was not simply a whim of the authors of the Gospels, but was  demanded by the very contents of those texts. “This mingling of styles,” he claims, “was rooted from the beginning in the character of Jewish-Christian literature.”   

Auerbach argues that, viewed from the world-historical standpoint of the Roman Empire and its culture, the arrest of Christ and the Denial of Peter are merely provincial incidents, police matters and their consequences, which could usually only be aesthetically dealt with through the forms of farce, or comedy, as befits any depiction of everyday life in antiquity. But the authors of the New Testament do not resort to farce or comedy: we do not laugh at the events of the Gospels, whether or not we believe in them—more often than not we are moved by them and their significance. This is because, as Auerbach puts it, they depict “the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life, which thus assumes an importance it could never have assumed in antique literature.” In the early Christian writers, Auerbach identifies an “antagonism between sensory appearance and meaning” which permeates, and even structures, their view of reality. Here, in the Gospels, the events of everyday life—the arrest and execution of one of the many prophets who happened to be preaching in Palestine at the time of Christ—take on the importance of world-revolutionary events for the first time; they mean much more than might be initially apparent.

Pasolini’s Il vangelo... expresses the sacred nature of the archaic remnants in Italian culture which resist modernity. His film, made from the perspective of a non-believer, refuses the positivist temptation to deconsecrate the story of Christ, preferring instead to embrace the “terrible ambiguity” that he found in the Gospels, restoring the power of myth to the narrative. His focus on the archaic remnants forgotten or discarded by modernity brings to the fore the lingering antagonism in Italian society between the residue of sanitised Fascism and the contemporary hegemony of liberal technocracy. The various styles and techniques he employs never negate each other; instead, their mutual co-existence in the artwork articulates a critique of the homogenising impulses of Italian culture in the mid-60s.


Il vangelo... had a mixed reception. “People didn’t miss comparing my Messiah with Pasolini’s Gospel according to St. Matthew, where you see Christ buggering pigs—and the comparison wasn’t to my advantage! Pasolini’s vision was judged more intelligent than mine; I’m content just showing a man among people…” Such was the complaint of the father of Italian cinematic neo-realism, Roberto Rossellini, when, after a long period of failing to secure a distributor for it, his own film about Christ, Il Messia, finally saw a brief run at a few Roman cinemas in September 1976.

Needless to say, Il vangelo secondo Matteo does not in fact include any footage of Christ buggering pigs. In fact, Rossellini’s petulant and jealous remark is interesting because “a man among people” is a more fitting description of Pasolini’s depiction of Christ than his own. Rossellini’s reaction of frustration—not to mention homophobia—at being compared unfavourably to Pasolini can be taken as representative of a certain view of Pasolini’s work: that it is not just disgustingly sexual, but overly intellectual. Rossellini tries faux-modesty: he is merely content to see Christ as a man among the people, no aspirations to anything cerebral whatsoever. Pasolini, meanwhile, is somehow both too intellectual and too vulgar, and Rossellini’s film is the one to suffer for it.

By the time Rossellini’s film was shown in Roman cinemas, Pasolini had been dead for nearly a year, murdered on the beach at Ostia on 2nd November 1975. Why exactly does comparison to Pasolini irritate Rossellini so much? As Gary Indiana puts it in his book on Salò:

Pasolini’s faggotry gave his presence on the political scene a salient abrasiveness and force. His intellectual fluency made him dangerous. Being smarter than his enemies, he could always justify making himself a pain in the ass, and he could count on the press, the church, the courts, and the provincial yokels he spent so much energy glorifying in other contexts to take the bait. Even a reverential film of Matthew’s Gospel became a scandal because of what Pasolini was, what he represented in Italy, a signifier of decadence, the epitome of things that were unmentionable in public.

Only Pasolini would successfully manage to persuade the Catholic Church to fund a film adaptation of Matthew’s Gospel in the same year that he was convicted of blasphemy. His work was surrounded by scandal and controversy, and was met with irritation, contempt, and disgust. Taken together, the three films he produced about Christ between 1962 and 1963—La ricotta, Sopralluoghi in Palestina, and Il vangelo secondo Matteo—represent a significant aesthetic development in his career, one which infuriated critics of all political persuasions and which heightened the contradictions in Italian society between the Church and secular society. Over the course of two years Pasolini emerged from his neorealist origin phase, and began to develop a style which was steeped in radical aesthetics while still entirely his own. The opposition he encountered during and after the production of his films about Christ encouraged him to push his work further, to become more antagonistic, more critical, more abrasive, more intellectual, more disgusting. Pasolini began his cinematic career filming the working class suburbs of Rome, but it was the revelatory disappointment of his journey through the landscapes of early Christianity that led him to the mode of radical allegory which would characterise the major work of the rest of his career.

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