Home > Pier Paolo Pasolini > Notes on Il vangelo secondo Matteo for possible paragraph in Trilogia Della Vita & Salò chapter in Cinema And The Meaning [strikethrough] Of “Life”

Notes on Il vangelo secondo Matteo for possible paragraph in Trilogia Della Vita & Salò chapter in Cinema And The Meaning [strikethrough] Of “Life”

Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964,) establishes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s full genealogical technique in cinematic form,[1] but he does not release its full power until the Quartet Of Life And Death (1971-1975.)  Il vangelo’s genealogy presents Jesus’s subjectivity as an actual revolutionary possibility within mid-1960s neoliberalism. Because Pasolini has not yet discovered the potentialzing effects of the incompossible chronotopes that he will develop in his films from Edipo Re (1967) and Porcile (1969,) the film does not attempt to intervene in its audiences’ life-world by introducing a virtual potential. While the Quartet’s films have quasi unified times and spaces, they produce sexualities as queered potentials through a process of an-aesthetic historization which renders impossible the normal articulations between the films’ chrontopes and the lives of their publics.

In addition to the genealogical techniques at work in his earlier films, Il vangelo adapts a narrative from a pre-capitalist[2] period and articulates references to historical artworks as a pre-textual free-indirect. The film denaturalizes the pacific, religious, Catholic image of Jesus in order to mobilize an angry, revolutionary Christ — a project requiring Pasolini’s full arsenal of genealogical weapons.

According to Pasolini, the free-indirect drives forward the leading edge of cinema, literature and expressive production in general (Cinema of Poetry, 175.) He understood the most advanced cinema, the “cinema of poetry,” as nothing other than a free-indirect cinema. That figure of speech structured Pasolini’s own ouvre across multiple genres from the very beginnings of career as a poet. In verse, prose, and movies, Pasolini merged the languages and images of others with his own, creating new, collective, revolutionary subjectivities.

Pasolini released Il vangelo and published a text on Giulio Herezeg’s Lo Stile indretto libero in italiano in the same year, 1964. The article, entitled “Comments on Free-indirect Discourse” makes a major contribution to the theory of free-indirect discourse initiated by Charles Bally, moving through V. N. Volosinov and beyond Pasolini to Gilles Deleuze[3]. Pasolini’s essay establishes that free-indirect discourse appears in multiple forms, bourgeois and otherwise; that it can generate new collective subjectivities; and shows that the free-indirect can be conceived of in extra-linguistic forms.

The year after releasing Il vangelo, Pasolini published “The Cinema Of Poetry,” which argues that poetry, understood as a capacity for the free-indirect, drives the development of language and reanimates the historically determined subjectivities of those who have used it. The article defines an eponymous corpus of movies in terms of their use of free-indirect images. Pasolini emphasizes the “pretextual” free-indirect, a mode in which a subjective inflection conditions all, or almost all, of the a film’s images, starting before the first shot. He notes that directors sometimes employ that mode as a pretext to substitute their own vision for that of a character, for example Antonioni in Desert Rosso (1964) (Cinema Of Poetry, 180.) That version of the free-indirect can function as a pretext, in the ordinary sense of an excuse or alibi, for a bourgeois monologue, another can also function as a  “pre-text” in the sense of a collective and sometimes institutional layer of reported expression or perception that precedes and extends beyond the text in which it appears (181.)

The link forged by Pasolini between poetry and free-indirect speech follows from his own poetic style.[4] His first published poems, written in a fusion of Friulian dialects and his own standardized Italian tongue, created a language that never existed, yet was grounded in his ethno-linguistic bicycling adventures of the late 1940s. The language Pasolini invented carried with it the consciousness of all those from whom he collected phrases and called forth a virtual People. Pasolini’s Friulian poems were in a fee indirect, reporting speech from various towns dominated by the agricultural proletariat, each with its own sub-dialect, and fusing them with dominant Italian. In doing so, Pasolini was embraced a “sociological awareness of the environment that he evokes” (“Cinema of Poetry” 175.) His early poems express Friulian regionalism as the product of linguistic conflict by gathering various collective subjectivities and languages into a whole whose words form a composition while sounding class and regional differences.

In his first films, Pasolini used both variations on optical point of view associated with character vision and art-historical references to generate moments of cinematic free-indirect[5]. In certain painterly citations, Pasolini reproduced compositions from a single painting such as Jacopo Pontormo’s 1525-8 Deposition Of Christ in La Ricotta. More often, Pasolini cited elements of various historically related paintings and combine them in a single image.  According to Pasolini, the citation of Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation Of Christ (c. 1480) at the end of Mamma Roma doesn’t just portray Ettore’s death through a single painting, it also summarizes a complex history of earlier baroque painting through its use of chiaroscuro[6]. These citations don’t primarily serve to beautify his films or to create some other visual effect, they function as traces of material culture. The Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpture (1668?) on the bridge in Accattone doesn’t primarily function as a metaphor for the main character, or to beautify the mis-en-scene, it maps a fact about the history of urban development in Rome[7].

In Il Vangelo, Pasolini uses “generic references[8]” to early Renaissance painting to construct a pre-textual free-indirect which extends throughout and beyond the film, expressing the institutionalized subjectivity of the collective visual memory[9] of the reception of Christianity. The image of ancient Palestine appears to us through the lens of 15th century Italian painting. For example, anyone who has seen Piero della Francesca’s Discovery and Proof of the True Cross (c.1640) will recognize the millinery stylings of the Pharisees from Il vangelo.

Pasolini’s film can be seen as a series of citations of Italian paintings mainly produced between the 15th and early 16th centuries.  Mark Weis has remarked that Paoslini’s use of renaissance painting includes Roberto Longhi in the free-indirect chorus. The shots of Jesus’ baptism bring into play what Longhi called Piero della Franceca’s  spaces of “free assembly” and portray the social not as a collection of individuals, but as a  paratactic totality, (56-7.) Even the handheld, documentary style shots[10] contribute to a free-direct through their articulation of a space similar to that painted by Caravaggio (Weis 59-60.)   In 1968, Pasolini told interviewer Oswald Stack that he had “wanted to do the story of Christ plus 2000 years of Christianity. At least for an Italian like me painting has enormous importance in these two thousand years, indeed it is the major element in the Christological tradition” (Stack, 91.)

In order to allow the chorus of Matthew’s text and citations of early renaissance paintings to sing of Pasolini’s present. Pasolini used locations in southern Italy as analogs[11] for biblical Palestine.  As Maurizio Viani points out, both the Palestine of Christ’s time and Southern Italy were colonies of Rome[12] (137.) For Sam Rhodie, The two areas constitute each other’s past and future: “Calabria now is what Palestine was … Palestine now is what Calabria will become” (164.)  Pasolini also dressed the Roman soldiers in the scene of Christ’s sermon at Gethsemane like Italian riot police from his own time and Herod’s soldiers at the slaughter of the innocents as ”fascist hoods.”[13] Those decisions contribute to the passage of the film’s political constellation into the time of its initial audiences. In order to give voice to the class structure of 1960s Italy, Pasolini cast agricultural workers and members of the sub-proletariat as poor characters and used intellectuals and artists to play characters from more privileged backgrounds. The southern Italian landscape and the faces of the bodies of the extras from the region form another pretextual layer of free-indirect within the film, addressing Christ’s revolutionary drive, depicted as a trans-historical possibility,  to the time of the film’s release[14].

These historical, institutional layers of free-indirect images[15] in the film function as matrices that generate the subjectivities of characters within the diegesis. The renaissance free-indirect differentiates itself into processes of subjectification through portrait-like shots edited into point of view clusters, as shown in these sequential images of Salome and Herodiade exchanging looks with Herod.

In such shot pairs, direct depictions of the subjective perception of 2 or more characters emerge in the free-indirect of 15th century painting. The film viewer can distinguish at least three levels: the subjectivities of the characters in the shot-pair, that of the renaissance series, and the agency narrating the film as a whole. Il vangelo’s narration demonstrates that the subjectivity of characters develops as they perceive a combination of the Gospel setting, the historical traces in the painting citations, and the landscape of 1960 Southern Italy.

Sometimes Pasolini renders subjective becomings through shot counter-shot pairs similar to those used to depict conversations in the classical cinema, but he also uses a variety of other structures. In some examples, a shot of a character looking precedes or follows clusters of often-mobile shots framing social landscapes. The characters in the social landscapes look back at the primary seer, producing yet more filigreed differentiation within Il vangelo’s scheme of subjectification. The thoroughly secular technique of pretextual free-indirect allows Pasolini to articulate social conflicts that lead to militancy.

The shots of character’s faces can reveal a character’s affect while establishing that a character’s glance. Discussing Il vangelo’s facial close ups, Bernard Schwenk (42) writes that “the viewer reads arrogance and self satisfaction in the silent faces closed off like masks, recognizes hope and the wisdom of age in the furrowed expressions of old people, and is confronted with the faces of the peasant youths, which reflect a readiness for violence and raw sensuality.” In the scenes of conversations or monologues, the audience perceives the expressions on the characters faces along with the characters themselves. For example, when the magi start on their journey to Bethlehem, the camera establishes the glance of the three kings at the crowd that has come to greet them and then the film cuts to shots of groups within the assembly with expressions varying from joyous awe to class resentment. The shots of the crowd mimics the glance of the magi looking at the assembly looking at them. Socially distinct groups look at each other.

Il vangelo produces their variegated subjectivities within the institutional free-indirect structures of Matthew’s text, earl renaissance painting, 1960s southern Italy etc., so that the institutional free-indirect layers fuse in order to differentiate into free-indirect expressions of group or individual subjectivity. The layers of free-indirect in Il vangelo never separate the consciousness of single characters or small groups from institutional, collective memory. The more differentiated subjectivities become poles along a continuum with the less differentiated institutional subjectivities without ever fully separating from them.

The depiction of miracles also form a free-indirect, that of a “believer through whom[16]” Pasolini sees Christ.  The form part of the “subjective reality” of the film.[17] The film renders many of them through variations of Jesus’s optical point of view so that his progressive subjectification entwines with the other free-indirect material.

Nothing holy can remain so when concatenated in a cause and event chain — least of all divine consciousness. By the time of his baptism, Pasolini’s Jesus had developed an animus against the state and the rich stronger than John the Baptist’s hatred of the powerful because, from the time of his birth, he had witnessed Power’s brutality toward Mary and Joseph. Up until the obligatory happy ending of the Gospel, Pasolini portrays almost every appearance of the miraculous ambiguously, so that it can be seen as part of the ordinary course of things. For example, Gabriel only appears to Joseph while he is asleep so that the audience might think that he dreams of the angel.

By showing us series of perceptions bearing multiple historical traces producing the subjectivities of the characters, Pasolini secularizes them so that they might serve the revolution. The film shows the audience the characters’ acts of perception through various forms of historical free-indirect images in part to bring out the common, or analogous structures of the world’s conditions that stretch from Matthew’s narrative to Italy in the mid 1960’s. Il vangelo’s  exquisitely filigreed imbrication of free-indirects extends the film’s secular revolutionary impetus from Biblical Palestine through lived time unto our Pasolini’s present. The film seeks to convert a possibility in Matthews gospel into a contemporaneous actuality, namely Jesus’s desire to “bring division,” and set “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother[18]” (M, 10,34.) In other, too pat, words, the film attempted to let a trans-historical construction of revolutionary drive inform something like a Gramscian national popular movie. Pasolini had not yet emphasized the difference between the historical-diegetic modes of production and economic circulation and those of the present the film addressed so that the films intervention too the form of a force of legitimate social hatred[19] that promised to play itself out quasi-mechanically. The Trilogia de vita, sought to intervene in it’s audience’s life worlds by offering a potential.

Works Cited

Allen, Joseph Henry and James Bradstreet Greenough New Latin Grammar for Scholars and Colleges. Boston. Gwinn and Company. 1916.

Pier Paolo Pasolini. “Notes on Free-indirect Discourse.” In Heretical Empiricism. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett Trans. New Academia Publishing. Washington, DC. 2005.

Pier Paolo Pasolini. “The ‘Cinema of Poetry.’” In Heretical Empiricism. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett Trans. New Academia Publishing. Washington, DC. 2005.

—— “Comments on Free-indirect Discourse.” In Heretical Empiricism. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett Trans. New Academia Publishing. Washington, DC. 2005.

Rhodes, John David. “Pasolini’s Exquisite Flowers: The Cinema of Poetry as a Theory of Art Cinema.” In Global Art Cinema Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, Eds. Oxford University Press. New York 2010.

—— Stupendous Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome. University Of Minnesota Press.  Minneapolis. 2007.

Schwenk, Bernard. “The Chosen Image: Pasolini’s Aesthetics of the Drawn-Out Moment.” Schwenk, Bernard and Michael Semff eds. Pier Paolo Pasolini and Death. Hatje Cantz. Munich. 2006.

Schwartz, Bath David. Pasolini Requiem. Pantheon Books. New York. 1992.

Schwartz, Louis-Georges. “Typewriter: Free-indirect Discourse in Deleuze’s Cinema.” SubStance, Vol..34, no. 3, 2005.

Stack, Oswald. Pasolini On Pasolini: Interviews with Oswald Stack. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1969.

Testa, Bart.  “To Film a Gospel … and Advent of the Theoretical Stranger.” In Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives. Patrick Rimble and Bart Testa, Eds. University  of Toronto Press. Toronto. 1994.

Viano, Maurizio.  A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice. University of California Press. Los Angeles. 1993.

Weis, Marc. “Slide Show Inspiration: On the Effects if Roberto Longhi’s Interpretation of Art on Pasolini.” In Schwenk, Bernard and Michael Semff eds. Pier Paolo Pasolini and Death. Hatje Cantz. Munich. 2006.

[1] The full chapter will establish PPP’s genealogical method and it’s influence on Giorgio Agamben. Leland De la Durantaye (in Agamben: A Critical Introduction Pages 21, 32-3,)Daniel Morris (in an article in Book Forum,) Brian Dillon (in an article in Frieze,) Giancarlo Macaluso, (http://www.pasolini.net/saggistica_agamben_Matteo-Vangelo.htm) and Jaleh Mansoor (in conversation) have pointed out, one need not interpret Agamben’s appearance as the Apostle Phillip in Il vangelo as a historical coincidence. Agamben would go on to become the exemplary twenty-first century  genealogist.


[2] On the “pretextual” free-indirect see Paoslini’s “Notes on Free-indirect Discourse” and “Cinema of Poetry.”

[3] For an analysis of the development of the theory of Free-indirect Discourse, see my article “Typewriter: Free-indirect Discourse in Deleuze’s Cinema.”

[4] In 1966, certain filmmakers and critics, were flabbergasted by Pasolini’s use of the word “poetry” and particularly the term “cinema of poetry.” Pasolini appeared on a panel at the New York Film Festival (which had screened Uccellacci e unccellini (1966,)) with Agnes Varda, Annette Michelson, Andrew Saris, René allio. Michelson in particular attacked Pasolini’s use of the term poetry. She was under the influence of a more or less official monological account of modernism that understood poetry as privileging a metaphorical axis. Like other speakers at the festival who held such a view, P. Adams Sitney, Parker Tyler, and Ken Kelman, she was not a practicing poet and sought to use the term poetry only in order to praise the so-called “American Avant-Guard” and its empty formalism. (See John David Rohdes’ “Pasolini’s Exquisite Flowers: The Cinema Of Poetry as a Theory of art Cinema.”)

[5] The most fundamental disarticulation of optical point of view, resulting in a fusion between character vision and that of the film itself in Momma Roma has been best analyzed in Stupendous, Miserable City. See the passages in chapter 5 on the sequences of Etore and his mother entering the housing projects they live in and the descriptions of the shot of the view of central Rome from their apartment window.

[6] See Barth David Schwartz’s Pasolini Requiem, page 398.

[7] See John David Rhodes’ Stupendous Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome, pages 42-48.

[8] Con Pier Paolo Pasolini pp. 70-71, cited in Greene, p. 74

[9] Schwenk uses the term “collective memory” to refer to Pasolini’s free-indirect citation of paintings, page 42.

[10] Greene points out that Pasolini replaced the short lenses of Accattone and with long focal length lenses in Il vangelo and that Comizi d’amore foreshadows the handheld documentary technique (75.)

[11] Sam Rodie works the notion that Pasolini’s films function as analogs particularly hard in his book The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini. He takes the word from Pasolini, who told Oswald Stack that he remade “the Gospel by analogy” and uses the word “analog” (82) through out the interview.

[12] Rhodes gives the best sketch of the complexity and precision of Pasolini’s figuration of contemporaneous Southern Italy in Il vangelo.  He points out that the locations should be understood in relation to Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped At Eboli  who’s title suggests that Matera, where Pasolini shot much of Il vangelo, was too wretched for Christ to visit and most importantly that Matera was the cite of the La Martella housing project where residents of the Sassi were relocated. Its presence marks the film’s off screen space, continuing Pasolini’s interest in public housing and urbanism by other means (Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome, pages 141-142.)

[13] Pasolini, Uccellacci e uccellini, cited in Greene, page 76.

[14] Rohdie points to the sound track as another layer of free-indirect and specifically to the blues and gospel songs in Il Vangelo  as the voice of a sub-proletariat involved actively involved in an insurrection in the early 1960s.

[15] Suggestively, Pasolini starts his “Comments on Free-indirect Discourse” with a consideration of the “historical infinitive,” a term he attributes to Alf Lombard, but which has also been used by Latin grammarians such as Joseph Henry Allen, James Bradstreet Greenough (in New Latin Grammar for Scholars and Colleges. Boston. Gwinn and Company. 1916.) The “historical infinitive” combines the speech of the author with that of the speaker and combines their “sociological and psychological modifications” establishing “norms and intentions … in a choral way.;” the examples of the historical infinitive Pasolini finds in Herczeg aren’t just those of an “individualized character, but of a typical speaker, representative of a whole category of speakers, thus of milieu, even a people.”  He calls this choral form “epic,” meaning a “discourse reanimated collectively” (81.) Pasolini explicitly links this form of free-indirect to “class consciousness in the history of Marx.”   This valance of the word epic has often been missed by those who emphasize his use of the word to describe his films (“Notes,” page 79.)

[16] Duflot Entretiens, cited in Greene (74.)

[17] Conversation with Sartre in “Cristo e il Marxismo” p 26, cited in Greene p. 74

[18] For the importance of this passage for Paoslini’s see Viano, page 132. Viano notes that the film succeed in dividing Pasolini’s Italy by forcing audiences to take a stand on the film.

[19] Viano 144.

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