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Exploring Europe at the British Library

15 June 2015

Pasolini and St Paul

Roger Fry, the Bloomsbury art critic, thought that Caravaggio would make a superb “cinema impresario”. With his dramatic use of light and dark, the Italian painter pretty well invented cinematic lighting. His great altarpiece of 1601, The Conversion of St Paul, glowed with such a photographic sharpness that contemporaries suspected some trick.In a revolutionary re-telling of the scriptures, Paul lies prone beneath his horse on a dirt road to Damascus, his arms outstretched in proto-filmic shafts of light. There are no heavenly visions in Caravaggio, only humans on the long, grubby pilgrimage of life.

Caravaggio's painting The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, showing St Paul sprawled on the ground beneath his horse's hooves
Caravaggio ‘The Conversion on the Way to Damascus’, 1600-01.  Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Much has been made of Caravaggio’s influence on the fierce pauperist Catholicism of Pier Paolo Pasolini. At the end of his film Mamma Roma (1962), staring Anna Magnani, the working-class hero lies dying on a prison bed like a sanctified Jesus, a stark image that also refers to Mantegna’s Dead Christ. The implied blasphemy of Caravaggio’s low-life Christs and Virgin Marys thrilled the iconoclast in the Italian film-maker, whose miserable death was somehow foretold in his own work.

On the morning of 2 November 1975, in slumlands outside Rome, Pasolini was found beaten beyond recognition and run over by his Alfa Romeo Giulia. A 17-year-old rent boy was charged with the killing – a homosexual tryst gone murderously wrong. Or was Pasolini the victim of a political hit? His presumed killer turned out to be affiliated to Italy’s neo-fascist party; the verdict is still open. Pasolini was 53.

Black and white photograph of Pasolini, leaning his head on one hand
Pier Paolo Pasolini, from La Rabbia. (Photograph by Mario Dondero, ©1963. With the kind assistance of the Ccentro Studi Pier Paolo Pasolini di Casarsa delle Delizie, Pordenone)

Saint Paul, published posthumously in 1977 and presented for the first time in English in 2014 (translated by Elizabeth A. Castelli, British Library. YC.2015.a.592), is Pasolini’s screenplay for the life of the apostle Paul. Drafted in 1966 and re-written subsequently, it was intended to form a sequel to his film The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), shot in the lunar landscape of Italy’s remote Basilicata region. The screenplay, with its New Testament voiceover, typically mingles an intellectual Leftism with a Franciscan Catholicism: blessed are the poor, for they are exempt from the unholy Trinity of materialism, money and property. The film was never made for lack of funds.

Pasolini’s solidarity with the Italian poor was at heart romantic. La Ricotta, his 35-minute episode in the collaborative movie RoGoPag (1963), features Orson Welles as an American director shooting a film in Rome about the Passion of Christ. Stracci (“Rags”), the sub-proletarian actor who plays the part of the good thief, dies on set from a case of real-life starvation. For all its manifest compassion, the film led to a suspended prison sentence for Pasolini on blasphemy charges. Over a tableau vivant inspired by Rosso Fiorentino’s painting of the Deposition Welles cries out sacrilegiously: “Get those crucified bastards out of here!” 

Photograph of the deopsition scene from Pasolini's 'La Ricotta' and the painting on which it is based
The deposition tableau from Pasolini’s La Ricotta (left) and Rosso Fiorentino’s painting (right).

Like La Ricotta, Saint Paul champions those who have been disinherited by capitalism and the “scourge of money”. The consumerist “miracle” of 1960s Italy had undermined the semi-rural peasant values of l’Italietta (Italy’s little homelands), Pasolini believed. In his retelling of the Bible, St Paul stands as a bulwark against the “corruption” brought to Italy by the trappings of American-style consumerism.

Nevertheless, as a Pharisee and former persecutor of Christianity, Paul was an ambivalent figure for Pasolini. After his conversion Paul took his mission round the world and became the founding father of the Christian Church in Rome with its hierarchy of prelates and pontiffs. In some measure, then, Paul lay behind the Catholic church that Pasolini had come to know in 1960s Rome, with its Mafia-infiltrated Christian Democrat Party and pursuit of power and political favours. In the screenplay, Paul is by turns arrogant and slyly watchful of his mission.

The saint’s story is updated, cleverly, to the 20th century. Cohorts of SS and Vichy French military collaborationists  stand in for the Pharisees of the first-century Mediterranean. With a fanatic’s heart, Paul oversees the killing and mass deportation of Christians. The action then fast-forwards to 1960s New York, where the post-Damascus Paul is preaching to Greenwich Village “beats”, “hippies”, “blacks” and other outcasts from conformist America. His attempts to overturn capitalist values in Lyndon Johnson-era America are met with hostility by FBI operatives and White House flunkies. In the end he is murdered on the same hotel balcony where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Pasolini’s approximation of the apostle of black liberation to the apostle of Orthodox Christianity just about works.

Though fascinating, Saint Paul is not the “literary work of the first magnitude” that the French philosopher Alain Badiou would have in his foreword to the screenplay. (Rather, it reads like a preliminary sketch for something to be coloured in later.) Inevitably one scans the screenplay for clues to Pasolini’s murder. The novelist Italo Calvino believed that Pasolini was killed from a “D’Annunzian”  hankering after redemption through violence. The scene of the film-maker’s murder, the shanty town of Idroscalo near Fiumicino airport, presents a typically Pasolinian pasticcio of the poetic and the squalid: shacks lie scattered across a filthy, blackened beach and in the distance rise the tenement slums of Nuova Ostia. At best, Pasolini’s was a sleazy kind of martyrdom; at worst, it was a bludgeoning out of tabloid crime-sheet.

Ian Thomson, University of East Anglia


Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mamma Roma. (Milan, 1962) X24/8626.

Pier Paolo Pasolini  Per il cinema. (Milan, 2001). YA.2002.a.5985.

Ian Thomson will deliver the Italian Studies Library Group Annual Lecture ‘Pasolini and Rome’ at the British Library  on 29 June 2015



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