Perhaps no other filmmaker was less likely, and paradoxically, more qualified to make the most reverent biblical film in cinema’s history than Pier Paolo Pasolini. After all, this was Pasolini, the self-confessed Marxist, homosexual atheist poet who had become the target of Catholic censure with his 1963 short film La Ricotta (from the compilation film Rogopag), about a movie extra in a biblical film who dies from starvation on a cross during shooting. But, familiar with the Bible in a way only an intellectual lapsed Catholic atheist can be, Pasolini the Marxist wanted to return the story of Christ to the working class, whom he pointed out, even in the Partito Communista Italiano, were staunch believers. Thus, Pasolini stripped his work of the mythology associated with most films of the genre, and of the traditional Christian iconography, in favor of a grim realism appropriated from neo-realist cinema. The resulting hand-held, semi-documentary style aligns the film more with Pasolini’s own Accattone than King of Kings.
The film follows the story of Jesus familiar to all, from the annunciation to the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of innocents, to Jesus’ recruitment of apostles and the Sermon on the Mount, to his prosecution and crucifixion. What is not familiar here are the austere surroundings Pasolini used for a backdrop, the hills of Southern Italy (the stunning scene where Jesus is confronted by Satan was shot on the misty slopes of Mt. Etna), a slum-like landscape reverberating with poverty. Nor did Pasolini use any professional actors, preferring to cast real faces from the region in the many roles. Pasolini’s Jesus, played by a Spanish economics student named Enrique Irazoqui (his first and last film), is an intense, brooding, angry Jesus, even more so than Willem Dafoe’s “Raging Christ” in Scorsese’s Last Temptation. He fits in well with the concept of an ancient ragazzi, a kind of Marxist sub-proletariat (to use the phrase preferred by Gramsci-ian Marxist revisionists) of disaffected youth, of which Jesus becomes the moral and spiritual leader. The scenes of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as Christ’s admonition of the rich and his outrage at the moneychangers have an added resonance here, as the story unfolds thematically against such abject poverty.
Pasolini steadfastly refuses to dip into the standard images of faith put forth by the Church. Here, Palm Sunday looks like Twig Sunday, and Salome’s dance for Herod is a chaste dance that has nothing to do with veils, but everything with the discreet charm of the upper classes, the “generation of vipers.” Pasolini uses music in this film with amazing effect – we get not only Bach and Mozart, but also Anton Webern, the spiritual “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child” (during the visit by the three wise men), Delta blues and the Congolese Missa Luba. All traces of the Hollywood epic are absent here, leaving only a cinema of carefully wrought metaphors that would provide a field day for your favorite semiotician.
Still, there’s a good chance such images may bother those used to more traditional biblical images. Pasolini’s film, in effect, takes the story of Christ away from the Church – and thus from the middle classes that he hated more than anything – and returns it to the hands of the people to whom religion means the most. In this regard, the film is radically politicized – that its text comes solely from the Bible itself and fits comfortably within Pasolini’s Marxist ideology may say more about the Christ story than one is ready to admit.