Pier Paolo Pasolini: An Italian Passion

The Marxist director's 1964 film about Jesus also caused a stir. Roger Clarke meets the guardian of his legacy
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Some critics, despairing of Mel Gibson's bloody hand, have cast their minds back to the last noteworthy film on the subject of Jesus Christ. Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St Matthew) was made in 1964. The maverick director cast a Spanish economics student named Enrique Irazoqui as his Jesus, a truck-driver as Judas and (being a good Italian boy) his own mother as the Virgin Mary. Despite spending weeks searching for locations in Palestine, he eventually shot the movie in the godforsaken Mediterranean landscapes just above the heel of Italy.

Mel Gibson used exactly the same Matera landscapes as Pasolini, and obsessively watched The Gospel According to St Matthew during the actual filming of The Passion. But what would Pasolini - a gay, Marxist atheist - make of Mel Gibson and the worldwide phenomenon of his film?

Since his violent murder in 1975, the estate and legacy of Pasolini has been stewarded by the formidable Laura Betti, the actress whom he directed on five occasions. She guards him as jealously as any literary widow (Pasolini, with some prescience, described her as his "non-carnal wife").

Betti's in-your-face style, both on and off screen, is legendary. Who can forget her performance as the terrifying wife of fascisti Donald Sutherland in Bertolucci's 1900, with that insane cackle, sharp enough to break every window in a house? She was a scabrous Wife of Bath in Pasolini's Canterbury Tales, and has been a hard-working actress since one of her earliest roles in Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

Her flat is above a large Roman square busy with traffic. Eighty this year, and recovering from a heart attack, she positions herself behind a table, and repeatedly answers the phone with an expletive.

Betti has written a book about Pasolini called Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Reason of a Dream. She was always Mary Magdalene to his Jesus: one of their earliest collaborations just happened to be centred around a crucifixion scene. Betti gets, quite correctly, given the "diva" role. Part of the portmanteau film Ro.Go.Pa.G. from 1963, Pasolini's segment was called La Ricotta, and satirised the efforts of Orson Welles to make a lavish story of the crucifixion that completely ignored the impoverished locals, who were desperate for food. La Ricotta enraged the Vatican, and Pasolini was arrested and prosecuted for blasphemy.

It was only a year later when he made The Gospel According to St Matthew. "As soon as I finished the first reading of the gospel," he wrote later, "I immediately felt the need to do something, a terrible, almost physical energy. What could I do for St Matthew? And yet I had to do something. It was impossible to remain inert, inefficient, after such an emotion, so aesthetically profound, which I had previously experienced only a few times in my life."

The resulting film, influenced by Pasolini's left-wing beliefs, portrays Jesus as a political radical and a firebrand. It was also dedicated to the memory of Pope John XXIII, the pontiff whose liberal views vis-à-vis the Jews many critics feel have been rejected by Mel Gibson.

The diva is intrigued by all the tales she's heard about Gibson's film. "I have a friend, Maurizio Millenotti, who is a costume designer," she observes. "He made the costumes for Mel Gibson's film and he tells me Gibson was asking all the time about Pier Paolo. They got on very well."

The phone and the doorbell ring constantly, and Betti is soon explaining that she needs to rest. She makes me promise, though, to ring her when I've seen the Gibson film. Before I leave she shows me the flat and we end up in her bedroom. Hanging in the room is a simple portrait of Pasolini - drawn by Kiarostami - dated 1974.

Some days later, I call her up. "The film is opening in Rome tomorrow," she declares. "I hear it is a photocopy of Quentin Tarantino," she rasps. "I saw some photographs," she says. "Very disgusting, so boring," Will she be going to see it? "No - maybe yes." Mel Gibson? "Pier Paolo was much more handsome and with such a good body. I never met anyone with his adoration of life. He had a kind of tranquillity and a purity. He was special, he had qualities no-one else had."

By complete coincidence, The Gospel According to St Matthew had its completed restoration announced in Italy last week. It cost £66,000 to create the sparkling new prints, and was completed at the specialist Studio Cine and Cinecitta Digital Laboratories in Rome. It had always been scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the original release of the movie on 30th March, 1964. One of the most noteworthy things about it, I suddenly remember, is that none of the cast wore make-up. It's a model of simplicity and clarity. It's so beautiful entirely because it is unadorned. If Mel Gibson wins some Oscars, his make-up people will be among the nominees. Draw your own conclusions.

The Italian Film Festival begins on 16th April at the Glasgow Film Theatre and Edinburgh Filmhouse, before visiting Stirling, Manchester, Cardiff, Swansea and London; www.italcult.org.uk