Thursday, July 29, 2021

Pier Paolo Pasolini | La ricotta || Pier Paolo Pasolini | Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) || Peter de Rome | The Second Coming

reverent and blasphemous crucifixions: the perfect homosexual, a triptych

by Douglas Messerli

Yēšūa of Nazareth was the perfect homosexual. Even before his birth, people perceived him as potentially being someone different and special, prophesying that fact and offering him tributes for his exceptionality even as a new-born baby. His woman-hating cousin John had been talking about his impending birth for years.

     He grew up feeling far closer to his mother than to his father, living his life with the suspicion that the man described as his father was not of his own blood. As a youth he was bookish, known for his intelligence and beauty. He could argue with the best of his elders and appeared to be apart and aloof from his siblings and his contemporaries.

     As he grew older he gathered around him 12 men, with whom he regularly traveled in what today we might describe today as a gang, a pack, an entourage, or a group of especially close same-sex friends. His friends and particularly Yēšūa were extremely witty and well spoken, Yēšūa spending a great deal of his energies proselytizing against the current church and state laws, social beliefs, and their repercussions. Love was their central message. But the language he and his friends used often appeared to be abstract and coded.

     Evidently, he was an expert at throwing good parties, knowing the secrets of how to entertain large gatherings on very tight budget, able even to turn water into something that tasted like wine. He had the trick of being both a wonderful host and guest at parties. At one such event he even aroused an apparently dead man back to life again.

      Nearly all the Christian iconography (pictures painted of him by memory and from word of mouth) present him as stunningly beautiful, exceptional, and different—so very pale and lean—from those around him. Everyone, men and women, were immediately attracted to him.

      But gradually his gathering of friends and their shady reputations got him into great trouble with the local police, who constantly threatened to arrest and imprison him, mostly to keep him from gathering round him such large groups—much larger than what today we might describe as block parties. He was certainly seen as a threat to moral and social order. And eventually these love-fests grew so rowdy and out-of-control that authorities perceived it would be better simply to do away with the gentle but disorderly public queer, whose followers claimed was simply doing wonders everywhere he went.

      Not having a mugshot in their police records, the Roman authorities paid one of his best friends to go up to Yēšūa in public and plant a good kiss on his lips— clearly something which was a regular occurrence with those among his group—so that they might identify him. He’d held a long dinner bash with these friends just previous to the arrest.

      With all the rumors about his wild behavior, it was easy to trump up charges leading to the proper punishment for such unruly behavior in those days. His jailors mocked him for the fancy and strange names his friends had heaped upon him and for his eccentric behavior just as they would mock any obvious fag today. Evidently, in those days, a queen was called a “king.” And this one had illusions of being the son of a god, and not only a decent Roman one but a Hebrew idol. With other common criminals, the queer boy was nailed to cross and planted in the sun do die of blood loss, infection, and starvation, however long it took. Like most of his kind, he died young, and quickly was perceived as a kind of martyr, who had disappeared from the scene all too quickly.

 *

    Those of you who express faith, will excuse my hastily sketched and obviously blasphemous statements while hopefully recognizing the underlying truths that they expose. Although from a religious perspective, the son of God, in his attempt to redeem mankind, may have absolutely nothing to do with a rowdy queer man, from only a slightly different viewpoint there are just far too many similarities to go unnoticed, of which literary recreations have long taken note.

     And it is to be expected that throughout the short history of cinema, Christ has been portrayed in numerous ways that recast him in the role of a contemporary social and sexual outcast, portraying him as being a kind of Marxist proselytizer, a simple man of the people, a hippie, and, yes, an incidental queer, some of these depictions being satiric but others seemingly quite serious in their assessments.

      Given the long, long history of the sacred portrayal of the Son of God, I hardly think I need recount that tradition. I have chosen rather to concentrate of just three cinematic depictions of Jesus Christ in this essay, all three proffered by gay directors, two of them by the same man, Italian cineaste Pier Paolo Pasolini, the other by British erotic filmmaker Peter de Rome. Two of these are generally defined as blasphemous, while the other is considered a reverent depiction; but I will leave it up to the reader to determine which of three is blasphemous and which is reverent.


the cheese thief

Pier Paolo Pasolini (screenwriter and director) La ricotta / 1963

Pasolini’s 35-minute film La ricotta appeared first as one of four films gathered as an omnibus production titled Ro.Go.Pa.G., the unmemorable title representing the names of the directors who make the movies included, Robert Rossellini (Illibatezza / Chastity), Jean-Luc Godard (Il nuovo mundo / The New World), Pasolini’s work, and Ugo Gregoretti (Il Pollo ruspante / Free Range Chicken).

     Of the four, Pasolini’s work was certainly the cause célèbre, if for no reason other than the director, accused of holding contempt for the state religion, was sentenced to four months in jail, which he avoided by paying a fine, the sentence later being declared void by an appeals court.

     But the film is also the most interesting of the four, even if they all bring up fascinating issues.

    Pasolini’s work is primarily a piece about movie-making, starring the great Orson Wells as the stand-in director for Pasolini himself, the huge-bodied American—in reality always seeking out roles to bring in some money in order to support his own directorial projects—somewhat smugly sitting back in utter disinterest in this particular film shoot, while quoting, at one point, from Pasolini’s diatribe against the Italian people themselves from his script from a year earlier, his 1962 film Mamma Roma.

     As with most movie-filming much of the time is spent with actors and extras standing around, finding ways to entertain themselves between the few takes from the actual movie in process. The movie being filmed, clearly a series of tableaux vivants and friezes of Christ’s Crucifixion, are filmed in color, while the rest of Pasolini’s picture, except for the opening credits, is shot in black-and-white. This obviously separates the cinematic art, which in this case is imitating the visual art of Renaissance painters such as Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, and the everyday occurrences going on around the around the artistic-cinematic evocation. If the film is intended to be sacred and even holy, the black-and-white sequences represent an incult, vulgar, and at times even barbarous world which sustains the visionary expression.      

     The major players of this work, the pretty boy who plays Christ, the divas (Laura Betti and Edmonda Aldini) who perform Mary and Mary Magdalene, a woman who stripteases on demand (Maria Bernardini), an interruptive journalist (Vittorio La Paglia), centurions, angels, dozens of young male hangers on and scores of extras, all seem to have poured out from a broken seam in a Federico Fellini film instead of feeling at home in the real world of Pasolini. Indeed, the journalist asks the director, in an obvious dig of the Italian master, what he thinks of the great Fellini, Welles answering, “He dances,” before possibly rethinking his description, but finally repeating it, “He dances.” The response suggests, clearly, that Fellini is more interested in entertaining—dancing like the boys doing the twist in the first scene—than in the “dance of the intellect."

     In the vast amount of free time between moments of shooting that these figures have to themselves, the dance to the pop music of the day, eat, pet the dog, fret, plot, and even pick flowers.

     And then there is the extra who plays the good thief, Stracci (“rags,” played by Mario Cipriani), who is so poot that he is willing to accept the job just for the food he is fed. He eats, falls to sleep, and still wakes up hungry, realizing that his family, his wife and four sons, are visiting the nearby countryside that afternoon. With the free meal he is provided, he manages to feed them, but he goes hungry.

     Dressing up in one of the female costumes and wigs, he is able to get another serving the ricotta cheese, and races off to hide it in a nearby cave. Speeding back to the set, he changes clothes and in a cartoon-like mania rushes back to the cave only to discover that the diva’s dog has consumed his lunch. It is enough to make a grown man break down into tears, just as we encounter when the journalist wanders by, soon after, catching the tearful giant now petting the dog he was about to strangle a moment before.

    When the journalist comments on how beautiful the dog is, Stracci tells him that it’s for sale, which the journalist is willing to buy if he’ll accept a check. Stracci, however, is willing to give the animal for only a thousand lira in cash. With that Stracci runs like the roadrunner to a countryside ricotta stand, buying up the entire offering of the fluffy white cheese made from goat or water buffalo milk and good loaves of bread, rushing back to hide it again in the cave.     

     Meanwhile, as his family members it in the open grass enjoyably sharing the little sack of vittles with which their father was originally provided, we observe the actor who plays the image of God pass by with a curious look in their direction. The street savvy eldest son rises, telling his mother he’s going on business, and that we may soon get a job as an extra. It is clear that by providing sex to the passing actor he may be able to serve the company in some minor capacity.

     A moment later, a couple of actors, one of them the handsome Christ of the movie, followed by cute boys also pass by, clearly moving in the direction of the little decayed structure in the near distance to have sex. The second son, better looking than the first, also rises, telling his mother that he too has a job to look after.

     The most beautiful of her sons, observing his brothers, still sits in the grass chewing the remains of his bread and cheese when suddenly out of the trees appears on the film’s stunningly beautiful angels. The youngest boy breaks into a full smile, as the camera pans to reveal once more the shooting location, where the call has just been made for the Good Thief to get “nailed up,” demanding Stracci to get hooked into his position on the cross. He rises, ready to take his position in the Passion. We don’t need to be told what happens to the smiling beauty, Stracci’s third son.

     Stracci is strapped to the cross, but the Diva, at that very moment, approaches the director demanding that her scene be shot immediately or she will leave. So Stracci, Christ, and the blasphemous thief are left on the ground to wait. Some of the crew members determine to entertain them as they wait—with another sort of dance—this gesture, in particular, meant to mock the immobile and now obviously suffering Stracci, his face seating in the sun, by asking a woman who obviously is sexually experienced with the crew to do a striptease. 

     Refusing at first, she finally agrees to do it, raising Stracci’s heartbeat and other body parts as he frustratedly remains strapped into position, unable to move.

     Refusing at first, she finally agrees to do it, raising Stracci’s heartbeat and other body parts as he frustratedly remains strapped into position, unable to move. Finally, the director issues the call for those on the crosses to be unstrapped, and Stracci rushes back to his cave to eat the cheese he has hidden there. As he gorges on this meal of his dreams, other cast members, who catch him the act, gradually bring him leftovers from the company table, sausages, liquor, cakes, and numerous other edibles to consume while they openly mock him for his enormous appetite, without realizing that in his poverty he has never had so much food set before him, let alone the opportunity to put it into his stomach.

     Stuffed, belching, and suffering from all the food, Stracci is called once again to strap up for the final shoot of the Passion. The crosses are moved up the hill and implanted, while below a crowd of well-dressed press members and the returned stars from the other scenes climb the hill, cameras snapping at their progress. The wind and lightning are checked out. The prompter, just to make sure that the dense-headed Stracci remembers his line, asks him to repeat it, which, despite his obvious indigestion, he successfully does. He is asked to repeat the line again, Stracci looking up to heaven with true conviction as he repeats:

                      Lord, remember me when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom!

     “Action” is finally called, as all wait for Stracci to repeat his line yet again.  But he only looks

down as we have seen his face fall into place a moment ago. The director calls again for action, but Stracci does not respond. He is dead on the cross, killed not through suffering the torture of nails pounded in his hands and feet, but through the satiation of his lifelong starvation. His heart obviously could not handle the stress of all the food he has managed to stuff into the emptiness of his mouth.

     Christ has not been crucified, but the poor thief of cheese has, praying to God as he has left this earth. Isn’t this man as sacred as the man, the son of God, on the cross next to him? Is it sacrilegious to represent the good thief, in this case, as a figure equal to and perhaps just as important as the man who symbolizes the Christian faith? The Christ in the film is just an actor, while the thief, alas, is simply an ordinary man.

Los Angeles, July 29, 2021


just another rebel

Pier Paolo Pasolini (screenplay and director) Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) / 1966

Directed as it was by a homosexual Marxist you might imagine that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966) would have aroused a great deal of protest, particularly coming after the movie I just commented on. And indeed, there were a few protests planned, but immediately abandoned upon its premier and after it won the Venice Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.

     Far more controversial and met with intense protests was Martin Scorsese’s version of Nikos Kazantzakis’ retelling of the life of Christ in human rather than divine terms, The Last Temptation of Christ. In that film, again not at all LBGTQ related, the primary controversies centered around

the Satan-induced hallucinations while on the cross, and the final passages of the film Christ marries and raises a family with Mary Magdalene

     As the story goes, after the controversy with La ricotta Pasolini was invited by Pope John XXIII to be part of a dialogue with non-Catholic Artists  in the town of Assisi, and to attend a seminar there at the Franciscan monastery. The visit of the Pope created such a traffic jam that the director was consigned to his hotel room, where, after coming across a copy of the New Testament, he read all four Gospels through, which immediately led him imagine adapting one of them into a movie. Supposedly, he found “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental." But the work he finally made remained quite true to Matthew’s version, mostly quoting from it, creating a work, as he described it, my analogy instead of the usual process of an amalgam of the several different versions.

        Since his film is not a LGBTQ work, in any obvious manner, I shall not discuss the movie in full here, but will only briefly mention it in relation to the scenes which end The Gospel According to St. Matthew having to do with the Crucifixion.

     I will just mention that the brilliance of Pasolini’s film lays in its utter simplicity. In stark black-and-white—please note if you have watched or are about to watch a colorized, English-language dubbed version that is also shorter than the original, you are not truly seeing Pasolini’s film and you should abandon the memory or your intent immediately—he attempted to re-mythologize the story by treating it more as a simple and straight-forward history not just of events but of the thousands of years of Church belief since then rather than as reconstruction of Christ’s life as Mel Gibson and others have attempted. Using non-actors (Christ is played by an economics student at the time, Enrique Irazoqui), the director stays within the lines of Matthew’s telling but portrays it so straight-forwardly and simply that any aspect of belief or faith seems almost beside the point. In his argumentative statements and sometimes even slightly humorous behavior this Christ is truly one of us firmly planted in the real. As Roger Ebert describes him:

            His personal style is sometimes gentle, as during the Sermon on the

            Mount, but more often he speaks with a righteous anger, like a union

            organizer or a war protester. His debating style, true to Matthew,

            is to answer a question with a question, a parable, or dismissive scorn.

            His words are clearly a radical rebuke of his society, its materialism,

            and the way it values the rich and powerful over the weak and poor.

 

           Like most of Jewish men of his time, he wears his hair short —none of

           the flowing locks of holy cards. He wears a dark, hooded robe so that

           his face is often in shadow. He is unshaven but not bearded.


      Most of the traditional religious critics were surprisingly impressed, surprised by its reverence. And Pasolini’s major critics for the film came, as one might have expected, from Marxist critics. Indeed, the director himself admitted, in response to leftist criticism, that "there are some horrible moments I am ashamed of. ...The Miracle of the loaves and the fishes and Christ walking on water are disgusting Pietism." But he also argued that the film, in part, was "a reaction against the conformity of Marxism. The mystery of life and death and of suffering—and particularly of religion...is something that Marxists do not want to consider. But these are and have always been questions of great importance for human beings."

       When asked by a critic in a 1966 press conference why he, a nonbeliever, had made a film with religious themes, Pasolini responded: "If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief."

      Christ in Pasolini’s work meets his end much as any human might, with fear and trepidation, too weak to even to carry his cross the entire way, it is carried mostly by Simon with Jesus walking behind. There is no great violence depicted here except when the nails are pounded into hands, first the man hanging near Christ, and later Jesus himself crying out in horrible pain. 

      As Matthew reports, Christ cries out with the feeling that god has forsaken him. And when one of the guards suggest the other stop sponging off his lips with water to see if Elias will save him, Jesus howls in pain, while somewhere in the distance we do see a half-ruined building crumbling as if an earthquake has just stuck it, fire observed in its windows. But this occurrence, like the man who soon will die, may simply be just incidental. Although his mother and the gathering of friends who stand nearby clearly suffer, Jesus is not truly different from the other men nailed to a cross that day in Golgotha.

     Christ dies, a ladder is put up against cross, and the body taken down, the crown of thorns tossed away, the body wrapped in a white winding sheet by Mary and Mary Magdalene. He is carried without pomp to a grave and a large stone door pulled into place before the entrance once they have laid him within.

       The next morning the women arrive bearing wildflowers to discover that the door has been opened, a child of undermined sex—either a beautiful young boy or a girl just as lovely—appears to tell them that he is gone; the cell is empty, and Christ is risen, a large smile being registered by Mary, as the narrator tells all to go forward and tell the story to the nations.

      Pasolini’s Jesus—unlike those who might prefer to perceive the “glory” of the event such as fundamental Christians, or those who seek the uniqueness and strangeness of the Crucifixion and Resurrection like Flannery O’Connor who described herself as a Third Century Christian interested in its mystery and magic—has been nearly drained of all mythology rather that re-mythologized. As a nonbeliever myself, I don’t necessarily see this as a problem, but I am puzzled why those with a deep sense of faith might not be outraged by the director’s concerned young man killed, like so many others in his time, just for being an innocent who believed he could change the society in which he lived.

      And one wonders, with all the horrors self-defined Christians have perpetuated ever since whether his teachings were ever properly understood or truly learned.

      It is interesting that in most of the works following this, Pasolini turned away from neorealism in the direction of fable and historical narratives that pointed to worlds truly out of the ordinary. 

Los Angeles, July 29, 2021  


the celebration of purity

Peter de Rome (director) The Second Coming / 1972

 Peter de Rome’s 1972 film The Second Coming actually has nothing at all to do with Jesus of Nazareth except through a wink and a nod via William Butler Yeats’ great poem concerning the disaster of the Christian world “fallen apart,” and a play on the pun of its title:

                         Turning and turning in the widening gyre  

                         The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

                         Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

                         Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

                         The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  

                         The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

                         The best lack all conviction, while the worst  

                         Are full of passionate intensity.    

     De Rome’s 14-minute work, in fact, begins almost as if were a spy / adventure story, with two men meeting outside the London Hilton hotel. They shake hands to greet one another, and carefully look around them, the camera revealing suspicious people in all directions. A foppish man in sunglasses, carrying a briefcase outside a men’s clothing shop seems to be looking in their direction; another more casually suited gentleman rests his hand on the glass of a shop where in stands looking back in their direction off-stage left.

    They move forward, strolling past several tourist destinations, including Buckingham Palace, where a man seems to be lurking behind a tree, another purposely resting against the protective gate. They survey a nearby sculpture and suddenly the foppish man again crosses their path, dropping a paper as he passes which one of the men quickly picks up. The message reads: “Casares.”

    So we now realize also that we are playing a rather odd and sophisticated game of “Clue,” the riddle of these two men are seeking, inexplicably, to solve.

    Suddenly one of them stares up into the sky, and when his purview returns to ground level we realize we now in Paris, he without the other. We spot the tour Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe, on the very top of which of the latter a man stands, dressed in black, who waves at our friend to join him. Once he has reached the top of the arc the man dressed in black pants and a black turtleneck sweater joins him, just as suddenly walking away, but leaving behind a programme, on the back which is written the words: “Not Maria Casares dum-dum.”

     The actress Maria Casares, the daughter of the Republican Prime Minister of Spain before Franco’s takeover, had a 16-year long affair with French author Albert Camus. She played in a number of French theater dramas and performing in several major motion pictures by Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau before returning to stage and playing in Corneille's Le Cid, Victor Hugo's Marie Tudor and Marivaux' Le Triomphe de l'Amour (The Triumph of Love) on Broadway. She, alas, has no role in our two gentlemen’s’ adventures.

     What is also marked, however, in this programme is a plane trip to Spain. And by the very next frame we see our previously clueless man in a telephone booth calling up his friend to tell him to meet him in Malaga on the Costa del sol, the capitol of the ancient Andalusia. They both immediately catch planes to that city and meet up at the airport. Now sharing a hotel in that beautiful city.

     Once more, like tourists, they explore the ancient town, finally after what appears to be several hours, coming upon the Marabella Hilton hotel. We observe a man running to a Mercedes convertible just like the one we spotted at the airport. Near to where the car was parked lays another flier containing a map with the city of Casares circled in black.

     This ancient town, the birthplace of Andalusian nationalism, dates back at least to Roman times, being the legendary spot where Julius Ceasar was cured of his liver ailment by the village’s sulfuric waters. So we travel with the man in the Mercedes to Casares, where we soon see our friends have also traveled, they standing on hillside looking over into the amazing, white-washed vista of the village. And once more, we are taken on a brief tourist tour of the town.


       We now witness the second man of our couple, the one who did not travel to France, briskly walking down the narrow, winding streets of Casares in search of some further sign of his destination. From a distance he spots the gray-haired man of the Mercedes who transverses the top of the T-shaped passageway toward which he is moving. He runs after him, following him finally to a small doorway into which he enters. Moving tot he doorway himself, he pauses, as if debating whether or not he wishes to enter.

     Inside sit several men in a very dark room, some whose mouths seem to be open with awe. On the way we perceive a crucifixion, the body complete nude. But gradually, as our eyes become acclimated to the dark, we see the penis what a appeared to be a wooden representation of the crucified Christ moving, slowing becoming erect. It is a living being, his head moving back and forth, his arms wincing in some pain. His chest shifts back and forth. We see nails have been embedded in his open palms. His face looks upward toward the heavens.

      Almost immediately, sperm begins to spurt in impossibly long ropes from his cock, hitting his chest and even his face, an enormous overflowing of semen. His face falls to the right side of his neck, blood dripping from his mouth.

     What we have just witnessed is, literally, a perverse act by a man who is willing to be bound and symbolically crucified, finding such excitement in the act of being painfully tied up, nailed, bound, and observed by a whole room of men that he cums of his own mental volition, no friction, frottage, or even human touch necessary for ejaculation. If one sees this figure as a kind of Christ, it is most definitely a blasphemous one in the light of any contemporary religious theological teachings of which I am aware. This might truly be said to be—to the vast majority of society—precisely what Yeats meant by stating “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

      But here in the village of Casares, where the grand Moors lived beside their ancient Roman and early Christian brethren, perhaps in this very room the Third Century Christians with whom Flannery O’Connor attests sympathy coming together like our two friends through a great deal of secrecy and cost to the daily lives, met to celebrate with crude almost pagan like rituals to substantiate their belief in the man who sacrificed his entire body—with all the spirit, organs, and fluids therein—so that they might be saved. For them there was no difference in their celebrations between the spirit and the flesh, for if Christ was made holy as the son of God, becoming one with God himself, his entire body was sacred, his flesh, hands, head, and feet; his organs, heart, lungs, and liver; his fluids, blood, piss, and sperm were all equally holy. What American artist (born of Honduran, and Afro-Cuban parents) in his is photograph of a crucifix bathed in his urine which he titled “Piss Christ” was expressing was similar, to my way of thinking to de Rome’s depiction here of a symbolically crucified Christ covered with his own semen: the ancient roots of Christian ceremony and belief, the celebration of Jesus of Nazareth as a man become holy through the miraculous rituals of witnessing, prayer or awe, and faith.

      And what these men have just witnessed, one must admit, is a kind of miracle so to speak. Given the narrow proscriptions of the rituals of our time, of course, there is some humor in both Serrano’s and de Rome’s art, but underlying it is a recognition that somewhere in these primitive representations of early Christian ritual,

                   Surely some revelation is at hand;

                   Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

And perhaps some “rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Los Angeles, July 30, 20021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2021).


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