Subversive Pasolini: La Ricotta and The Gospel According to Matthew — a conversation between Nina Power and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith


This dialogue between Nina Power and film historian Geoffrey Nowell-Smith took place in 2012-13. It was due to be published by a film magazine, but fell through for reasons beyond the control of the authors. It first appeared online at

La ricotta (1963).

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
: Pasolini has often been described as a Catholic Marxist but his Marxism was always unorthodox and he was never a Catholic although brought up in an environment permeated by the imagery and values of Italian Catholicism. Like most people on the left in Italy in the 1950s he was strongly anti-clerical (not surprising given the profoundly reactionary role played by the Catholic Church in Italy in the period) and it is only in his poetry that another side of him appears — an identification with suffering as experienced by the oppressed and potentially embodied in the figure of Christ. Then in 1958 the election of Pope John XXIII was a massive force for change — in Italian society, in the Church, and in Pasolini himself. Catholicism became something to engage with — as myth (in the noble sense of the word), as culture, as ideology, as a political force that was not necessarily quite so reactionary as it had been or seemed to be throughout most of preceding Italian history.

Out of this set of conflicting impulses there were to emerge two of Pasolini’s most remarkable films, very contrasting both in content and in tone. The first of these, in 1963, was La ricotta (“Curd-cheese”), an episode of a curious compilation film called RoGoPaG after the names of the directors — Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Ugo Gregoretti — signed up by Pasolini’s producer Alfredo Bini to contribute to it. La ricotta is an exuberant film, part in color and part in black-and-white and mixing comedy and tragedy in an unnerving way. It is also quite savage in its attacks on various targets, notably the Italian film industry, and arguably disrespectful to say the least toward Catholic tradition if not Christianity itself. On first release its makers were the victims of a successful prosecution for “insulting the religion of the State,” earning Bini a substantial fine and Pasolini a suspended prison sentence. No such fate awaited the second film, Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, released a year later in 1964, which is a very straightforward and at times even reverential telling of the Gospel story in the version attributed to the Apostle Matthew. (The standard English title of this film is The Gospel According to Saint Matthew but Pasolini was furious at the theologically inappropriate intrusion of the word “Saint” and it will be called The Gospel According to Matthew throughout this dialogue.)

The striking contrast between the two films calls for explanation. Did Pasolini have a change of heart between the making of the two films? Was it a profound change or just an opportunistic one? He was certainly very shaken by the virulent response to La ricotta and it is at least arguable that the Gospel film was a response to his critics and that he deliberately made it as unlikely to cause offense as he possibly could. But this explanation, proffered at the time, does not stand up to scrutiny. For a start the Gospel film was already at an advanced stage of planning at the time the trial of La ricotta took place and there is no evidence that he made significant changes to his plans in response to his unexpected conviction. Moreover, the facts surrounding the trial suggest that the real target of the prosecution was not La ricotta at all but the much talked about Gospel, precisely because of the seriousness with which Pasolini was known to be approaching the task of making it. La ricotta did not outrage Catholic opinion, which was quite used to taking a bit of blasphemy in its stride, and the prosecution was mounted by state officials with no help from the Church.

The Gospel According to Matthew was not widely objected to either, but was definitely thought to be threatening — though for reasons which were both political and, typically for Italy, quite arcane. Basically, they have to do with the highly charged political atmosphere of the period and the high stakes being played in a context dominated by the repercussions of Hungary in 1956 and John’s election in 1958. Hungary had profoundly shaken the Left and the election of John was to do the same and more to the Church and to the Right with which it was allied. From 1948 onward, Italian politics had been dominated by two opposing power blocs. On the one side there were big business, the Church, Christian Democracy, and the Atlantic Alliance, and on the other the workers’ movement, the secular and progressive forces emerging from the Resistance, and the left-wing political parties which were either neutralist or pro-Soviet in the Cold War. It is unlikely that the intricacies of Cold War politics were in the forefront of John’s mind when he paid his visit to the notorious Regina Coeli prison in Rome, famously declaring to the inmates, “You could not come to me, so I came to you” (echoing the words in Matthew XXV, “I was in prison and ye visited me not”). But the new stress on Jesus’ humane and social mission and sympathy toward the poor and the oppressed inaugurated by the new Pope and the Second Vatican Council, which he initiated and whose deliberations continued after his death in 1963, had profound implications for Italian politics. So, while Hungary had brought the Socialists into political alliance with Christian Democracy, isolating the Communists, John’s actions provoked a powerful current in a different direction, potentially bringing the Communists into dialogue with reforming elements within the Church and with the Catholic masses more widely.

Many Christian Democrats (or those among them who were both Christians and democrats, which was by no means all of them) were ashamed of being aligned with the forces of reaction and afraid of losing credibility with the mass of the faithful, while the Communists, with an equal mixture of sincerity and calculation, were no less eager to present their policies as truer to the spirit of the Gospels than those of their nominally Christian opponents. What more natural, then, than for a well-known philo-Communist filmmaker and polemicist to want to make a film that opened up a dialogue between the two sides?

Well, yes and no. There were plenty of people who did not want a dialogue between Catholics and Communists, and plenty among those in favor of dialogue who thought the notorious homosexual and scandalous Pasolini was not a natural person to initiate one. There were also quite a few opponents of dialogue who reckoned that a film of the Gospel story by Pasolini could be dangerous if taken seriously but the danger could be averted if the filmmaker was further discredited in the eyes of right-thinking opinion before the film came out. Such, rather than any genuine outrage, seems to have been the rationale behind the prosecution of La ricotta. So La ricotta was prosecuted and re-edited for full theatrical release. Some small cuts were made, but more significantly the opening title was changed. Instead of affirming that “the story of the Passion—which the film indirectly evokes—is the greatest that I know,” Pasolini now declared it to be “the greatest that ever took place.” The purpose of the new wording was to distance the filmmaker from any suggestion that the mockery of the Passion tableaux in the film-within-the film applies to anything other than cinematic or painterly representations. The question then arises, from a twenty-first century point of view: which is in fact the more subversive film, the disreputable Ricotta, which in the course of attacks on the film industry and other assorted targets makes fun of reverential attitudes to Christian iconography, or The Gospel According to Matthew which presents itself as reverential to a sacred text but proposes a radical re-reading of its meaning? And, at nearly fifty years distance, do these issues have any contemporary bite?

Nina Power: La ricotta has elements of slapstick, of course, but this bodily humor can also be seen as the flipside of the raw physicality in the shape of Stracci’s hunger (his name meaning “rags”). Is it a film “about” religion? Or is it a film about poverty and bourgeois hypocrisy? Or a film about the process and performance, the framing, of cinema itself? Is Pasolini not in fact mocking the whole rigmarole of filmmaking, including and perhaps especially, his own? Orson Welles, the director, “plays” Pasolini, at one point reading out one of Pasolini’s own poems to a hapless interviewer, claiming “My love lies only in tradition.” There are the repeated references to paintings and, beyond that, the painterly frame itself, which is undone throughout as extras laugh and stumble. The deliberate use of extras in La ricotta, as opposed to the peasant and working-class individuals carefully selected by Pasolini for roles in The Gospel According to Matthew, is key to understanding La ricotta (similarly, some “intellectuals” are chosen to play the wealthier disciples described in the Gospel). As Pasolini stated, rather bluntly, in a 1969 interview: “I never use extras in my films, because they are just hacks. Their faces are brutalised by living all their life at Cinecittà, surrounded by whores who are always hanging around there. When I shot The Gospel I went round and chose all the extras myself one by one from among the peasants and the people in the villages round where we were shooting. But when I made La Ricotta, where the characters are real extras, I used real extras” (Pasolini on Pasolini: Interviews with Oswald Stack, Thames and Hudson, 1969, 40).

Pasolini’s profound obsession with the face, and the authenticity of the face, so often the hallmark and the focus of his films, is thus deliberately undermined in La Ricotta. As Giorgio Agamben, one of Pasolini’s faces in The Gospel (he plays the Apostle Philip), writes in Means Without End: Notes on Politics: “appearance becomes a problem for human beings: it becomes the location of a struggle for truth” (trans Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 91). Agamben continues, in what could easily be a direct reflection on Pasolini: “the face is, above all, the passion of revelation, the passion of language … every human face, even the most noble and beautiful, is suspended on the edge of an abyss” (96). The abyssal qualities of the face, so central to Pasolini’s image of humanity, is deliberately toyed with and undone in La ricotta: extras are merely extras, and spend the film lolling around and messing about, while Stracci starves, eats, and dies. The unfathomability of the face, this struggle for truth on the edge of an abyss is central to Pasolini’s more serious project in The Gospel: to present authenticity without ground that undermines both bourgeois sensibility and religious mawkishness.

In La ricotta when a hack journalist arrives and the bourgeois gawkers turn up at the end of the film (La ricotta being filmed just outside the gates of Rome), Pasolini reveals the myriad dimensions of the film process, breaking the painterly frame of a cinema that would pretend to have no outside — so we see the reviews in the process of being composed, the audience chattering and jockeying for position, the actors when not acting, and so on. In this sense he preempts Jean-Luc Godard’s famous letter to François Truffaut in which Godard states that he wants to make a film that would reveal all of the external dimensions of the film-making process. At the same time, the religious element allows Pasolini to point to what he finds absolutely lacking in the consumerism and desacralizing Italy he detests, without defending this religion as such. In this regard, La ricotta reminds me of Buñuel’s 1965 Simon of the Desert, where the martyr is suddenly transported to a 1960s club and all his suffering is muted out in the soft hedonism of the decade: the anachronism of religiosity in the age of bourgeois consumerism (Pasolini described this film in Pasolini on Pasolini as “stupendous, perhaps Buñuel’s finest” [140]). La ricotta seems to me to be above all a film about poverty, and the inability for this bourgeois class to understand it, except as the object of ridicule (the over-feeding scene of Stracci is accompanied by their laughter and cruel, brutalized faces).

Was Pasolini’s prosecution for La ricotta motivated by a concern for the damage the more “serious” film, The Gospel, could do? This seems quite likely given how “straight” Pasolini plays it in the latter film, using lines taken directly from a Catholic version of the gospel. Pasolini noted that actually very few Catholics had read the gospel and there’s a case to be made for seeing Pasolini’s attempt here in a strange lineage of over-conformism (à la Savonarola) or subversive close reading (as with Thomas Paine’s reading of the Bible, where the dimensions of equality and revolutionary potential are brought out against the conformist invocation of religion as a supplement to a hierarchical and traditional social order, as in Edmund Burke, who Paine is responding to). Certainly the scenes where Jesus simply sweeps up people from their everyday lives and convinces them in an instant to follow him are images of what it might mean to radically break with habit; as are the anti-family elements: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37) and the invocation to “let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22), with the later Marxist echo of this phrase (from 1852’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content”). But it is true that Pasolini regretted the way he filmed the miracle scenes — “[t]here are some horrible moments I am ashamed of, which are almost Counter-Reformation Baroque, repellent — the miracles” (Pasolini on Pasolini, 87) — and some left-wing reviews of the film at the time were hostile because of the way it contributed to the “dialogue” between Catholicism and Communism, so if we accept the idea that the two major cultural forces in Italy at the time were Catholicism and Communism, and Pasolini was of necessity part of this dialogue, we are obviously asking a different question now with regard to its possible subversive qualities. I find the repeated use of Odetta’s “Motherless Child” on the soundtrack one of the more radical aspects. This spiritual can be read in the film as a comment on Jesus of course, albeit with the roles reversed — the virgin birth makes him a “fatherless child” in a human, though not divine, sense — but as a comment on slavery and the diasporic nature of the lives of black people kidnapped into work, Odetta’s refrain is stark, and the dissonance between the modernity of the recording and the historical legacy of slavery fused with the gospel is, to my mind, one of the most striking things about the film.

So perhaps the context for Pasolini’s subversion is different today — does the contemporary subversive spectator continue to exist? Gabriele Pedulla’s recent In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema (Verso, 2012) looks at the way in which the decline of the cinematic experience and its replacement by other forms of viewing (TV, laptops, mobile phones even) has affected film criticism. The “countless varieties of image-consumption” (3) have made it possible to recognize a “golden age” of the picture house (1920s–70s, according to Pedulla) but also means the image of the spectator must be revised. Pedulla talks about “the prevalence of Pavlovian responses … [and] the impoverishment of empathy” (126). To watch Pasolini’s films without being able to understand the “existential contradictions” he wanted to portray in the Gospel and without experiencing the intensity that he sought to convey in all his films would render the films something quite different: “a series of aesthetic technologies that invite spectators to make themselves vulnerable only to a certain extent, and to behave as docile consumers of à la carte emotions. Exactly as with all of the other goods of contemporary capitalist society” (131), as Pedulla puts it. Was Pasolini prescient regarding consumerism and was his curious combination of peasant-centred communism and religiosity-without-religion a kind of solution, or rather the symptom of a last-ditch fetish for a vanishing world?

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith: I think he was prescient regarding consumerism and that his general aversion to capitalist modernity would have extended to today’s cinema in general though not necessarily to every film thrown up by a culture industry which has never been a total monolith, even today. He would have looked sympathetically on any film or other work of art which seemed to him to express some sort of imaginative truth about some or other thing or rather the relationship between two things—as he himself did with sex and Fascism in Salò or Christianity and poverty as in the Gospel film. The problem was that by the end of his life he had run out of imaginative alternatives to the modernity he increasingly hated. The peasantry, with its closeness to the soil and the seasons and the rituals of death and resurgence, had disappeared as a class throughout the western world. The subproletariat had not disappeared but the pasty-faced junkies he saw haunting the ghettos of modern cities no longer had the aesthetic (and sexual) appeal of the young men in Accattone or Mamma Roma. The ambivalent power of Christianity — both comforting and repressive — was also waning and in any case he had only seen it as potentially liberatory for a brief period around the making of The Gospel.

One thing I particularly like in The Gospel According to Matthew is that it really is the Gospel according to Matthew. That is, it is a film of a text, not a biopic of Jesus. Things that are not in that Gospel are not in the film. The famous version of the Annunciation with the Angel appearing to a virgin in a dream and saying “Blessed art thou among women” is not there. So no clichéd corny images of a Fra Angelico angel holding a lily. Instead you get a visibly pregnant woman and a puzzled, angry man being told by an angel not to reject her. But this literalness towards the text is not replicated in the settings, which have no historical specificity but are generically archaic (and therefore mythical), being simply locations which happened to still exist in southern Italy. Then at a third level there is the music, which is drawn from the entire later Christian tradition right up to negro spirituals and the Congolese Missa Luba. Neither the text nor the settings give any intimation that Christianity was going to develop into the world religion we know today. But the music does. It offers Bach’s protestant pietism, the baroque catholicism of Mozart, but also music from the Soviet Union, black America, and Africa. So Pasolini first liberates the story from later accretions, deliberately rejecting the iconography pilloried in La ricotta, and then he sneaks an alternative iconography in through the back door, on the soundtrack.

Nina Power: With The Gospel and La ricotta in the mid-1960s, we have two sides of a not yet fully tarnished coin: it is still possible, iconoclastically perhaps, but possible, to show both real poverty, and the appearance of poverty, and real transcendence and the beauty of faces touched by the archaic, the spiritual, the historical. By 1975, very shortly before his death, Pasolini has indeed given up all hope in the possibility of cinema to reveal or depict these things: “I think that consumerism manipulates and violates bodies as much as Nazism did”, he says, manifesting his disgust with what has happened to these “bodies.” As Lorenzo Chiesa puts it: “Pasolini now believes that the hedonistic consumerism and sexual promiscuity imposed by the techno-fascist power of late-capitalism necessarily entails an anthropological genocide which is concomitant with a degeneration of all bodies, independently of their social class and geographical provenance” (“Pasolini and the Ugliness of Bodies,” in In Corpore: Bodies in Post-Unification Italy, ed. L. Polezzi and C. Ross, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007, 107).

Pasolini’s quest for the authentic face and body is intimately tied up with his image of a declining, narrowing world, as the bourgeoisie become ever more dominant, even in their secularism and libertarianism, and the aspiration to become more like “them” merges into a cultural indifference that Pasolini feels he can read into the bodies of contemporary beings. As he says in the final interview: “Before … the difference between the middle and the working class was as marked as that between two races. Now it’s almost vanished. And the culture that has been destroyed the most is the rural one, that is, the peasants.”

The peasants are preserved in Pasolini’s cinematic aspic, but the physiognomic communism that defines them is simultaneously being destroyed from the other side. As he says: “Marxists, too, have been anthropologically changed by the consumer revolution. They live differently, have a different lifestyle, different cultural models and their ideology changed as well.” Pasolini’s despair at the success of secularism and the co-optation of the left reveals a deep hatred of homogeneity in any form (fascist, consumerist), and perversely then, those cultural forces that he also hated start to appear as markers of the class and cultural difference he ultimately values so much (the Catholicism of the peasants). The death of dialect at the hands of the centralizing voices of mass media is perhaps prefigured in the endless parade of silent faces that tilt their heads to listen to Jesus in The Gospel: if they were to speak “contemporary” Italian, their beauty would be destroyed. In the mid-60s, Pasolini’s cinema attempts to preserve the last vestiges of a dying culture, even as the bourgeoisie busily nose their way in with their endless questions and hunger for spectacle, as in the end of La ricotta.

But are Pasolini’s sentiments echoed in contemporary feeling, or do they remain specific to his responses to a highly particular period in Italian history? In a much more recent essay, written by an economist, we hear strange echoes of Pasolini’s observations, shifted from the face to the body as a whole. In Hervé Juvin’s The Coming of the Body we see an attempt to understand what it means for life expectancy to have doubled (albeit in certain parts of the world) over the course of a century and we hear Pasolini’s complaint once again, slightly shifted: “I used to know a rural Brittany where the peasants were worn out, broken by hard labour, at sixty. Let’s not even mention the women: after the age of thirty of thirty-five, what remained to them of what we call womanhood?” (trans. John Howe, Verso, 2010, viii–x). Pasolini’s love of faces as bearers of historical (rather than religious) grace is incompatible with contemporary, culturally dominant body worship in which longevity is projected into the future, not the past, and health and conventional attractiveness are the markers of success in the finite (yet almost infinitely extendable) realm. Juvin shares also Pasolini’s double-edged mourning for religion, but goes even further beyond Pasolini’s linking of consumerism with fascism towards a full-circle account in which the structure of religion becomes fused with the logic of the market, breaking all ties and leaving only the body: “Religion maintained a vertical connection between God and humans … and it regulated the horizontal links between humans. The market came to substitute its universal and accountable reason as rule, language and mode of exchange. It also linked what had never been linked before, connected those who had never thought that they had anything in common. That link is broken. The market still deals with the horizontal link but now it is the body that connects with other things, that establishes frontiers and reinvents separateness; because it is complete, and so long as it is complete, it becomes the face of God, of otherness, of the same and the other” (176). The body of Stracci, undone by a relation to poverty, hunger, and over-eating rooted in Italy’s past, would never survive in such a world, and Pasolini surely knew it.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith: What you say about the historical body is important but I think it needs to be linked to the other side of Pasolini, which is a nostalgia for a state of being beyond history, beyond (or prior to) civilization. There is in the films a literal or metaphorical stripping-bare, a search for what lies beneath the trappings of civilization — any civilization, not just the present one. It is a search for the essence, for that beyond which there is nothing, or if something, only a mystery. Hence the obsessive shots of faces. Hence too, in the Gospel film, the focus on the text behind which there is … what? Just an itinerant preacher of uncertain parentage who clashes with Church and State and in the end is the victim of a sacrifice. The stripping-bare is most apparent in Theorem, where the collapse of the family leaves only a void and the last shot is of the father stark naked running along the barren slopes of a volcano. There is then the horrific vulnerability of the naked bodies in Salò which is to some extent historical because what is being imagined is a quasi-historical situation where there is Power but no social order. Pasolini associates this state of affairs with Fascism but it is fascism (small f) in an extended sense. The décor is authentic and the bodies are real but one is not to suppose that Sadean orgies really took place on the shores of Lake Garda in the last years of the World War II. Pasolini’s imagination was that of a poet but one who saw himself in his films as working with things rather than words (the “written language of reality,” in his own phrase). This means that his relationship with history-book history — Judaea in the first century AD, even Italy in 1944 or 1964 — is always a bit elusive. At one level he allows his imagination to roam free but at another level there is always a hard-core, thing-like reality which he starts from and wants to explore. Salò and Theorem in particular are thought experiments in which a customary order is disturbed and just a nub of reality is left and the film elaborates on what might then happen. For its part, the Gospel film re-imagines a major world religion on the basis of a text, some faces, and a landscape. This re-imagining had great actuality when the film came out and it could well do so today when the Church is in rapid reverse gear away from the spirit of the Second Vatican Council which animated Pasolini’s film. Commenting on the disciplinary measures taken by the Vatican against a group of American nuns, Garry Wills wrote (New York Review of Books, June 7—20, 2012): “Now the Vatican says that nuns are too interested in ‘the social Gospel’ (which is the Gospel), when they should be more interested in Gospel teachings about abortion and contraception (which do not exist).” That social Gospel (“which is the Gospel”) is what is laid out in stark black-and-white in Pasolini’s film from 1964. As a reading of the Gospel it is basically quite Puritan, in a historical sense, and links with the more generalized puritanism which he claimed to have been “consumed by” and which is most extreme in the articles he wrote towards the end of his life under the title “Lutheran Letters.”

Nina Power: It seems then that Pasolini’s films have two major functions: the “stripping bare” you mention, and the disruption of order, the subversion that comes precisely from this stripping bare. The latter has become an often-repeated cinematic trope, where a household or a situation is disturbed by the intrusion of something unwanted or bizarre, which then proceeds to shake everything up and render everything new. We see this in, for example, in Dominik Moll’s 2005’s Lemming, where this animal arrives and seems to trigger all manner of transformations into the bourgeois household, or Nagisa Oshima’s 1986 Max mon amour, where Charlotte Rampling takes up with an ape, or the rat in François Ozon’s 1998 Sitcom that again triggers all manner of neurotic and taboo behavior (incest, suicide, sadism). But all of these homages to Pasolini perhaps with a dash of Buñuel, miss what you describe as “a hard-core, thing-like reality” at the heart of Theorem and Salò precisely because they make it too easy, too psychoanalytic, too simplistically subversive. These films are really about bourgeois repression in its farcical mode, not the unfathomable series of ruptures introduced by the Terence Stamp figure in Theorem, or the desperate and pointless structured cruelty of Salò. Pasolini succeeds in these films, and in The Gospel to introduce something truly extraordinary into cinema — a radically non-religious mysticism (although we might leave Salò to one side as the film that troubles all of Pasolini’s oeuvre).

The early scenes of The Gospel, where Joseph is confused and angry by his very young-looking wife’s pregnancy, and the reassurance by the angel that this is to be accepted is played as simply as could be, as faithfully to the text as possible without decoration, and yet an eerie sense of unfathomability permeates the film even when Jesus is depicted as humanly, as realistically as could be imagined. Pasolini’s attempts to preserve the unknowable with the barest minimum of settings and structures is exposed in La ricotta but perhaps even more exposed in a way in The Gospel, where the indifferent backdrop and generic outfits only serve to illuminate the authenticity of the human face — an authenticity that nevertheless lacks ground. Religion and cinema itself mediate Pasolini’s desire to speak directly in the language of reality, but a reality that destabilizes the one that surrounds the film itself — the commercialization of all human life, and the destruction of the authentic face. Pasolini’s ultimate turn against bodies and their vicious punishment in Salò is perhaps ultimately retribution for the fleeting and obscure promise of the face: but Pasolini was the one to capture it best, nevertheless.