Pasolini's St. Paul: a Prophecy of Our Times?
This article first appeared in counterpunch.org
on January 16, 2015.
| Supposedly an atheist, Pier
Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) said he was religious because
he blasphemed. He intended to “blaspheme” in a film about
St. Paul. His film would be religious, he said, because
“in ancient sacred rites, as in all the peasant religions,
every blessing amounts to a curse.” The script, which he
composed between 1968 and 1974, was never filmed,
partially because the Vatican, which had awarded him a
prize for The Gospel according to St Matthew
(1964), attacked his 1967 film, Teorema, the
story of a god who descends on a conventional bourgeois
family, near Milan. He physically seduces the
members—father, mother, daughter, son, and the maid– and
leaves them. The consequences of the seduction and
abandonment are dire: suicide, promiscuity, madness, and a
life-endangering miracle—the levitation of the maid off a
high balcony. Radical ontological transformations. Set on
killing himself, the father, naked, climbs a little hill,
which the Milanese call “la montagnetta” (the “little
mountain”). Covered in greenery now, the hill consists of
rubble accumulated from the Allied bombing of Milan in WW
The Vatican was not amused. It wrote in its organ, L’osservatore romano, that in Teorema, the devil had visited the family and, therefore, beware of visiting Pasolini at the cinema. In fact, in his characterization of disrupting convention and loosening the passions, the divine had been a Dionysian god, in an apocalyptic manifestation—that is, revelation. You couldn’t blaspheme more unforgivably than to deliver the message of revelation through a pagan god. So, Pasolini’s St. Paul became a casualty of Teorema and was never brought to the screen.
Still from Pasolini’s “Teorema.”
But we have the screenplay. Translated magisterially with an excellent introduction by Elizabeth A. Castelli, published by Verso with a preface by Alain Badiou, Pasolini’s St. Paul: A Screenplay, is in Badiou’s words, “a literary work of the first magnitude.” The question at the heart of the work is this: can any revolutionary idea survive institutionalization? As Badiou aptly observes,
In a sort of spiritual testament, published posthumously, Pasolini wrote:
For Pasolini, Christianity in its original context had been a positive social force, opposing slavery and challenging the Roman Empire, but, as the screenplay makes clear, it was a brief revolutionary moment between two laws, the old imperial law of Rome and the new imperial law of the Christian church. In the interregnum when “the old cannot die and the new cannot yet be born” (Antonio Gramsci) it is possible for a communitarian society of popular democracy to breathe.
It took forty years for the polemical idea of a subversive Christianity to emerge backed by scholarly authority. It is a pity that Pasolini never filmed his St Paul because his treatment of early Christianity undermining Roman domination is central to a revolutionary understanding of pre-institutional Christianity.
Today, Pasolini’s thesis of an anti-colonial
Christianity, rising from its eastern dominions
(Antioch was the third most important city of the
Roman Empire) would have fit in among new
perspectives on traditional Pauline studies.
Over the last thirty years, researchers and theorists
in postcolonial, feminist, and
political-anthropology studies have insisted on
the importance of context in reading Paul’s
letters. Already in Pasolini’s time, the
revision was brewing. In 1962, a Pauline
scholar in Sweden, Per Boskow, had published a
study, Rex Gloriae: The Kingship of Christ in
the Early Church (Stockolm: Almquist
and Wiksell, 1962), which suggested that hidden
modes of resistance were to be found in early
Christian worship and ritual. A Paul covertly involved
in the politics of Empire ran contrary to the
Protestant tradition, which saw Paul as the
apotheosis of homo religiosus, the “man of
faith,” ever since Martin Luther had found in
Paul’s Letters to the Romans his
own “justification by faith” for breaking from the
Church of Rome.
The emerging interest in Paul in the post-war, however, could not be divorced from the question arising about the responsibility of Christianity in the horrors of the genocide of European Jews—the Holocaust. In the Protestant tradition particularly, Paul’s conversion had been constructed in antithesis to Judaism. Definitionally in Christianity, a Christian was not a Jew; therefore, Paul’s origin in Judaism had to be obscured in favor of highlighting a compelling individual quest for salvation in Christ. Did this Manichean version of Paul’s dual identity—and, by extension, of Christianity’s dual identity– contribute to the Holocaust?
The impetus for reading Paul against Pauline tradition
had thus become a moral imperative and a historical
task. Exegetic studies uncovering resistance in the New
Testament took off in earnest and bore fruit in the
1980s. Starting with Simon R. F. Price’s groundbreaking
work, Rituals and Power:
We cannot be sure that Pasolini was influenced by the theological turmoil simmering just beneath the surface of Pauline studies in the Protestant world, but we do know that for the years he worked on his St. Paul (1968-1974), he met and regularly corresponded with a sympathetic theologian in the Vatican, who must have been informed of such momentous moral crossroads traversing Christian theology as a result of the Holocaust. Question about the Vatican’s role in the tolerance to Nazism abounded, after all.
Throughout his mature writings, Pasolini faulted the Church for becoming, as recently as the 19th century, the toy of the religiously apathetic bourgeoisie, the instrument of its legitimacy—in a survival effort, perhaps, to continue to function as a viable institution by accommodating the values of the liberal democracies ushered in by the social struggles of the French Revolution. In Pasolini’s view, the Church’s compromise with a cynical, secular, acquisitive and counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie had taken the soul out of its body. Abandoning the side of the oppressed, the Church had become irrelevant. In fact, more than irrelevant: it had become criminally repressive. But was this compromise with the ruling class singular or constitutive of the evolution of Christianity? Was the worm that turned to eat the heart out of the Church there from its beginnings?
It is, of course, extremely risky to “close the text”
on Pasolini’s volatile, self-deconstructing,
deliberately unstable works. In an echo of
Marx, they scream out, “question everything,”
including, and especially, the author. The
script appears to be tossing in a furious dialectical
vortex of contradictions. No sooner does one think
one has grasped Pasolini’s intention than that
certainty evaporates. Suffering Paul, for example,
tormented and debilitated by a mysterious malady,
Nevertheless, I will risk an answer: yes, the
screenplay strives to confirm that the worm was
Later in his luxurious study, Luke, dispassionate, methodical, writes down, in his “elegant handwriting,” a sanitized version, a précis of an amicable resolution to this world-consequential dispute over the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, at the end of which he rises from his chair and gives a satisfied belch. Judaism lost. Luke is depicted as the consummate propagandist; Pasolini describes him as incarnated by Satan. To Satan, invisible, Luke will demure, “The Church is only a necessity” (the stress on “only” is Pasolini’s).
To further illustrate Luke’s unreliability, Pasolini gives him an accomplice: Satan. When the Church is all but founded, with the impending accession of Timothy to the bishopric of Ephesus, Luke and Satan (seen from the back only) toast to “their church” with a bottle of champagne:
They drink and get drunk, evoking all the crimes of the Church: a huge, long list of criminal popes, of compromises by the Church with power, of bullying, violence, repressions, ignorance, dogmas. At the end, the two are completely drunk and they laugh thinking of Paul who is still there, travelling around the world, preaching and organizing.
In a tone reminiscent of Christopher Marlowe’s iconoclastic, poetically splendid “blasphemies” in Doctor Faustus, Pasolini narrates Satan’s thoughts:
Not only the course of the official church but also Paul’s fate is sealed—there will be no more need for evangelizing; the church will assume “pastoral care” and manage its faithful from the pulpits of its now proliferating churches.
One of these is in Ephesus, which Pasolini resets in contemporary Naples. While in voice-over we continue to hear Paul’s voice composing his long letter to Timothy, bidding purity, modesty, prudence, continence, gravity, piety — all the virtues of humility that restrain pride — the camera is directed to showing us a scandal of pride, luxury, class-power, and excess: In a grand pomp, there is Timothy, dressed literally in gold, crushed under the mitre, almost unrecognizable. And all around the multicoloured and magnificently carnivalesque chorus of other priests… A group of authorities: high officials, puffed up like turkeys in their grand uniforms; political men, in their black, double-breasted suits, with vulgar and hypocritical old faces; the throng of their bejeweled ladies and their servants, etc., etc. The altar encrusted in gold — a true and real golden calf — full of baroque affectations and neoclassical flourishes, work of total unbelief, official, threatening, hypocritically mystical and glorifying, clerical, of the master.
Ite, missa est. It is finished, except for disposing of Paul whose evangelical zeal seems to be unstoppable and institutionally embarrassing. St Paul, as noted, is set in the 20th century. The places are, therefore, altered: Jerusalem becomes Paris, mostly during the Nazi occupation (the Nazis stand for the Romans; the Pharisees are the collaborating Petainists and French reactionaries, of whom Paul is one); Damascus becomes Barcelona, in the aftermath of the fascist victory in Spain; Antioch is “rational” Geneva; Athens becomes modern, intellectually shallow, “dolce-vita” Rome; and Imperial Rome is relocated in New York, the belly of the new imperial beast.
After Paul’s conversion to the Word (analogously, to the anti-fascist Resistance), which almost coincides with the end of WW II, his evangelical travels take him throughout Europe, now reveling in post-war consumerism. His travels acquire a picaresque quality. In some of the most satirically comic scenes, he preaches to absurdly inappropriate audiences: in Bonn, he preaches to industrialists, causing a Neo-Nazi riot; in Geneva, he upsets the stolid Christian sympathizers and potential donors with his excessive emphasis on sexual continence; in Rome he bores his idle nouveau-riche hosts with his antique rhetoric of a Christian faith, whereas they anticipated hearing a pop-celebrity mystic, similar to Krishnamurti; in New York’s Greenwich Village, he preaches obedience to authority to an assorted group of black rebels, youngsters high on pot, anti-war activists, feminists, and desperate young refugees from suburban, middle-class emotional and mental entropy. Here, too, he causes a riot, in which the police intervene and arrest him.
So, in the end, if only for reasons of provoking the
authorities and causing bad publicity, he has to be
got rid of. Pasolini has him shot (by Satan’s
assassin, the fundamentalist pro-Israelite
fascist thug) like Martin Luther King—on
the balcony of a shabby hotel on the West Side of
Manhattan, the exact replica of the Lorraine Motel
in Memphis. His blood trickles down to
the pavement below to form a “rosy puddle.” The
events in the life of this cinematic Paul have
stretched from the Nazi-fascist era to 1968, “the
era of a false liberalization, actually desired by the
new reformist and permissive power, which is
also the most fascist power in history”
(Quoted in “Afterword” by Ward Blanton; my
emphasis). In other words, to the time of our
own postmodernist liberal fascism (Pasolini
But what in the end does it matter to us—this ancient crime of the institutional Church? Even the death of suffering, zealous Paul—what does it all matter? For an intellectual like Pasolini and his generation of Italian anti-fascists, wasn’t there an alternative “faith” in scientific materialism—in Marxism? There are passages in the script that expose what Pasolini called the “hypocrisy of [institutional] Marxism,” a theme he had elaborated in Le ceneri di Gramsci (Gramsci’s Ashes) in 1957. For example, he complains that the Italian Communist Party’s culturally bourgeois intellectuals (of whom he was one), are generally divorced from the masses and from Pasolini’s beloved innocent rogues of the young petty criminals of the sub-proletariat (they don’t plunder the Treasury, after all, as do the respectable senators and politicians), from the peasants and laborers, who, unlike the bourgeoisie, still managed to live by the ministrations of human solidarity—by communism, religious or scientific. In fact, the critique of institutional Marxism, the “party,” etc., runs parallel and is analogous to the critique of the Church—both failed to nurture a proletarian, popular culture to oppose to the hedonistic, individualistic, consumeristic, and finally anti-human ideological perversions of neo-capitalist (his word) bourgeois culture.
And here, I must bring up Gramsci, one of the major and lifelong influences on Pasolini (one of the first was Rimbaud). Figuratively facing Gramsci’s grave he implores his tutor in Gramsci’s Ashes: “Will you ask me, you unadorned dead/ to abandon this despairing/ passion for being in the world?” (Mi chiederai tu, morto disadorno,/d’abbandonare questa disperata/passione di essere nel mondo?) Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), Marxist intellectual, political theorist, sociologist of culture, was a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and died in Mussolini’s prison. He is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony (from the Greek, meaning “leadership”), which explains how the class in power maintains its status quo and reproduces it through its cultural institutions. Lenin had used the term. It was an elaboration of Marx/Engels’ claim that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” though the German Ideology, written in 1846-47, was not published until 1932 (and that in the USSR). If Gramsci’s claim was valid, how was a proletarian revolution ever to occur if the consciousness of the proletariat was shaped exclusively by the education of bourgeois institutions? Or, how, even, could a peasant or labor society sustain the onslaught of the market’s mind-numbing consumerism that was to lead, in his view, to an irreversible “anthropological cataclysm,” which would transform people into things, at once exploiters and exploited, victims and victimizers? The advent in the mid-50s of the “economic boom” in Italy, the affordability of goods, especially of television, caused the instant imborghesimento (metamorphosis into bourgeois) of Italian everyday life, chronicled satirically in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce vita, Italo Calvino’s novel, La specolazione edilizia, in Alberto Moravia’s La noia (Boredom), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura.
Written in the hedonistic years of the 60s and in the “years of lead” of the 70s, the campaign of terrorism carried out by the Italian secret services—“the parallel state”– in collaboration with the CIA to roll back popular democracy, Pasolini’s St Paul today reads like a prophecy. Eerily, as though seeing us in the mirror of a not-so-distant future, Pasolini describes a Paris gripped by the terror of Nazi “anti-terrorism.” Stephen, a young partisan in the budding resistance, hardly of the age of conscription (like Pasolini’s younger brother, Guido, partisan, killed at nineteen in an ambush in 1945) is executed by the Nazis. Paul, at this stage a zealous official, in fact, an uncritical collaborator with the Nazi occupation forces, witnesses the execution of young Stephen. He is distressed, haunted even, but does not withdraw his collaborating zeal from the Nazi occupiers. They are the law, and he’s a lawyer. His duty is to serve the law. “In the face of Paul,” the screenplay reads,
What follows the discovery of Resistance activity and the execution of Stephen is an orgy of cruelty, stretching to the genocidal limits and beyond. Starting with a quotation, “There was as though a signal for persecution” (Acts 6:1-8:3), Pasolini describes how the obscenity of Nazi repression is to be represented:
Add head chopping, bombs and poisonous bombs,
bombed hospitals and schools. Killer drones. Bombed
air-raid shelters. Medieval-style sieges,
(called sanctions) exacting the lives of
500,000 children (on record). Two, three, many Abu
Ghraibs: men turned into dogs, obscene sadism
Can anyone doubt that Pasolini’s St Paul was, indeed, a prophecy?
Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
While Pasolini &
photographer Dino Pedriali staged some of the
photos for this 1975 photoshoot, they are
nonetheless a record of Pasolini presenting us
with a view of himself as a writer. As St. Paul
exists only via Pasolini's notes and not as a full
film, it seemed appropriate to include some of
them as witness to this other aspect of Pasolini's
creative work - the beginnings of what he hoped
would be a work in progress.