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St Paul, Caravaggio and the agonised Catholicism of Pasolini

San Paolo, published posthumously in 1977 and presented here for the first time in English as St Paul, is Pasolini’s screenplay for the life of the apostle. 

Poet and provocateur: Pasolini on location in Italy, 1970s. Photo: Mondadori via Getty

St Paul: a Screenplay
Pier Paolo Pasolini; translated by Elizabeth A Castelli
Verso, 143pp, £16.99

Roger Fry, the Bloomsbury art critic, thought that Caravaggio would have made 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 retelling 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 human beings on the long, grubby pilgrimage of life.

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), the working-class hero lies dying on a prison bed like a sanctified Baroque Jesus. The implied blasphemy of Caravaggio’s lowlife 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.

San Paolo, published posthumously in 1977 and presented here for the first time in English as St Paul, is Pasolini’s screenplay for the life of the apostle. Drafted in 1966 and subsequently rewritten, it was intended to be a sequel to The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), shot in the lunar landscape of Italy’s Basilicata region. The screenplay, with its New Testament voice-over, 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 poor was at heart romantic. La ricotta, his 35-minute episode in the collaborative film RoGoPaG (1963), features Orson Welles as an American  director shooting a film in Rome about Christ’s Passion. Stracci (the name means “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 a Caravaggio-like painting of the Deposition, Welles cries out sacrilegiously: “Get those crucified bastards out of here!”

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

Nevertheless, as the former Saul, a Pharisee and persecutor of Christians, Paul was an ambivalent figure for Pasolini. After his conversion on the road to Damascus in 33AD, he took his mission round the world and became the founding father of the Christian Church in Rome, with its hierarchy of prelates and pontiffs. So, in some measure, he lay behind the Catholic Church that Pasolini had come to know in 1960s Rome, with its Mafia-infiltrated Christian Democracy party and its pursuit of power and political favour. 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 French military collaborationists in Vichy France stand in for the Pharisees. 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 (“I appeal to you, brothers . . .”). 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, St Paul is not the “literary work of the first magnitude” that the French philosopher Alain Badiou would have in his foreword. (Rather, it reads like a preliminary sketch for something to be coloured in later.) Inevitably one scans the screenplay for clues to the film-maker’s murder. Italo Calvino believed that Pasolini was killed from a “D’Annunzian” hankering after redemption through violence. The scene of the murder, a shanty town near the Idroscalo di Ostia, not far from Fiumicino Airport, presents a 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 a tabloid crime sheet.

Ian Thomson is the author of “Primo Levi” (Vintage) and “The Dead Yard: a Story of Modern Jamaica” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era