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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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle