I think one could reasonably argue that in modern art, including cinema, including cinema that touches upon “the spiritual in art,” the background frames are more important than the figures operating on the foreground. The ones that grabbed me most in Pasolini’s classic black and white The Gospel According to St. Matthew are the dark, hardscrabble shots. These are the flinty landscapes, Herod’s rough and buff young man-soldiers at the massacre of the innocents, stony Jerusalem cityscapes, tough priests and imposing headgear, and the death of Judas by suicide. We could organize these under the rubrics “landscape,” “cityscape,” and “anthro-scape.” Drawn from southern Italy, the created environment is inhospitable to life. In this piece of Vitalist visual thinking, the rough material and cruel social substrate appears as if dead in order to highlight the mysterious, life-sustaining miracle of the revelation. Reflecting no doubt a Jewish prejudice of my own construction, I was less drawn to the shots of Jesus and his companions. Just too pretty, Jesus and Mary were unable to match the raw topographical, urban, and human brutality of the background. To do that, they would have needed to be as nasty, brute, and “ugly.”
More so than the figure of Jesus himself and the gospel words, it was the soundtrack that carried for this viewer the strong sense of “spirit.” There was Bach (Mass in B Minor) along with Odetta’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” the thundering “Gloria” from the Congolese Missa Luba, and a quiet Kol Nidre. All of these were complemented by the haunting sound of “wind” insinuating itself over the landscape, the literal form of spirit as ruaḥ.
About sound in relation to topography I’m grabbing a piece from Deleuze in Cinema 2. He’s not writing here about Pasolini per se, but he makes good sense of the point I’m trying to make. That point concerns how in film the “aesthetic of the visual image …takes on a new character: its pictorial or sculptural qualities depend on a geological, tectonic power as in Cezanne’s mountains…The visual image reveals its geological strata or foundations, whilst the act of speech and also of music becomes for its part founder [sic], ethereal (Cinema 2, p.246). (The use of that term “ethereal” gives Deleuze away; it appears, he had an eye and an ear for “the spiritual in art.”)
In avant-garde films like the Gospel According to St. Matthew, what should be most clear is that narrative-linguistic content is subordinate to images, understood as poetic. This seems especially necessary in movies that handle religious or spiritual material in which “content” threatens to overwhelm and flatten the aesthetic sensation that shapes the shape of the content. The opposition between poetry and prose is one of the basic points in Pasolini’s well-known essay “The Cinema of Poetry” (1965). There he develops the idea of the irreducibly irrational, oneiric essence of cinema as being more like poetry than prose. While I would reject much of Pasolini’s thinking as too binary in structure, the structure gives one a good idea regarding what to look for in his larger body of work, this film included. Simply put, the landscape in the background, I would argue, is more irascible than the primary figures. In much the same way, Derrida privileged the picture frame over the picture in his unjustly neglected Truth in Painting.
You can read all of “The Cinema of Poetry” here. While it is not Pasolini’s intention in this essay to write about religion and art, I want to focus on how his analysis highlights the brute irrational as the most “significant” component in “the spiritual in art.” Again I want to direct attention to environmental features such as a landscape, cityscape, and anthro-scape. Pasolini writes, “Here, we must immediately make a marginal observation: whereas the instruments of poetic or philosophical communication are already extremely perfected, truly form a historically complex system which has reached its maturity, those of the visual communication which is at the basis of cinematic language are altogether brute, instinctive. Indeed, gestures, the surrounding reality, as much as dreams and the mechanisms of memory, are of a virtually pre-human order, or at least at the limit of humanity in any case pre-grammatical and even premorphological (dreams are unconscious phenomena, as are mnemonic mechanisms; the gesture is an altogether elementary sign, etc.).”
Setting aside the semiotic terms of Pasolini’s analysis, about the imagistic quality of the shots that I selected above, see this 1965 interview, in which the filmmaker underscores again the brute, mystical and irrational, which in The Gospel According to St. Matthew are best evoked by non-human and inhumane features. Pasolini explains, “Although St. Matthew wrote without metrics, he would have the rhythm of epic and lyric production. And for this reason, I have renounced in the film any kind of realistic and naturalistic reconstruction. I completely abandoned any kind of archaeology and philology, which nevertheless interest me in themselves. I didn’t want to make an historical reconstruction. I preferred to leave things in their religious state, that is, their mythical state. Epic-mythic. Not desiring to reconstruct settings that were not philosophically exact—reconstructed on a sound stage by scene designers and technicians—and furthermore not wanting to reconstruct the ancient Jews, I was obliged to find everything—the characters and the ambiance—in reality.”
What is of interest here in the analogical method is the collapse of time into a single image that belong neither entirely to the past nor entirely to the present. The Gospel According to St. Matthew was intentionally made in such a way as to not resemble conventional biblical epics built on a logic of “representation.” The register is not historical, but nor is it ahistorical. Building on top of temporal strata (Scripture, Catholic tradition, and Italian art), the film is supra-historical in structure, the brute milieu being non-specific to the text and the time of its origins. The landscapes are what below we will see Deleuze refer to as “any-place-whatever.” In Pasolini’s film, the place of the film is southern Italy, not Roman Judea. The “jews” are Italian. Relating to what Deleuze called a “time-image,” I want to mean by this term simply the way the sense of the past and the sense of the present are crystalized into a single image. The image includes biblical gospel compressed alongside ongoing realities of poverty and revolutionary struggle, caught best in long shots devoid of either a human presence or sympathetic visage.
The reality has been made strange by film, and that too was deliberate. On shooting the film piece by piece, Pasolini describes his own working method as a filmmaker. “My work is facilitated by the fact that I never shoot entire scenes. Being a ‘non-professional’ director I’ve always had to ‘invent’ a technique that consists of shooting only a very brief bit at one time. Always in little bits—I never shoot a scene continuously. And so even if I’m using a non-actor lacking the technique of an actor, he’s able to sustain the part—the illusion—because the takes are so brief.” This then is the trick in relation to the shots framing my own analysis. On one hand, the sense of strangeness depends upon long and extended shots, the camera lingering in sharp, mosaic segments, on the other hand.
The roughness that is characteristic of the raggedy film-segment conveys something that Elizabeth Castelli observes in her introduction to her translation of St. Paul, the screenplay of an uncompleted project just published by Verso. Against what Pasolini dismissed as the modern “bourgeoisentropy,” Castelli notes his claim that modern consumerism “would overwhelm modern society and render the peasant and the worker invisible. Such entropy would, in his view, make unsentimental expressions of authenticity increasingly difﬁcult, not to say completely impossible.” “Translating Pasolini Translating Paul” in St. Paul, Verso, 2017, p.28)
What I am picking up from Castelli is not the filmmaker’s otherwise unremarkable Marxist-Christian critique of modern capitalism. What matters more to the analysis offered here is how she flags Pasolini’s critique of sentimentality, which is a feature so often an infelicitous part of the warp and woof of religion and film. Pasolini’s shots of landscapes, cityscapes, and anthro-scapes are powerful as “religious” or “spiritual” only to the degree that they are, on the whole, the most unwarm quality of his film on Matthew.
This lack of sentiment glosses those silent moments and spaces, figures of alienation which are haunting as wordless and without world. About long topographical shots in Pasolini and in other works of postwar cinema, Deleuze is keen to show how the movement-image (i.e. the image of action, which, like language, works according to a cause-effect chronological sequence of an extended shot) is suspended in the compressed form of the time-image.
I can conclude this post no better than by citing Deleuze, who writes, “The break in the sensory-motor link does not only affect the speech-act turning in on itself and hollowing itself out, and in which the voice now refers only to itself and to other voices. It also affects the visual image, which now reveals the any-space-whatevers, empty or disconnected spaces characteristic of modern cinema. It is as if, speech having withdrawn from the image to become founding act, the image, for its part, raised the foundations of space, the ‘strata’, those silent powers of before or after speech, before or after man. The visual image becomes archaeological, stratigraphic, tectonic. Not that we are taken back to prehistory (there is an archaeology of the present), but to the deserted layers of our time which bury our own phantoms; to the lacunary layers which we juxtaposed according to variable orientations and connections. These are the deserts in German cities. These are the deserts of Pasolini, which make prehistory the abstract poetic element, the ‘essence’ co-present with our history, the archaean base which reveals an interminable history beneath our own” (Cinema 2 pp.243-4).