The raw landscapes around the 2019 European Capital of Culture, Matera, in southern Italy, were the setting of one of the greatest religious films ever made
The Italian poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini, with his fierce pauperist Catholicism, saw a holiness in the lives of the socially disinherited and dispossessed. Blessed are the poor, for they are exempt from the unholy trinity of materialism, money and property. Pasolini’s intellectual leftism was at heart Franciscan; it judged the Church, not by its wealth, but by the standard of Christ and the gospels. At the end of Mamma Roma (1962), his great film starring Anna Magnani, the hero lies dying on a prison bed like a sanctified Christ by Caravaggio or Mantegna. Caravaggio especially was a painter close to Pasolini’s heart. With his dramatic use of light and dark, the Counter-Reformation artist might have invented cinematic lighting.
The implied sacrilege of Caravaggio’s lowlife Christs and offensively pregnant Virgin Marys excited the iconoclast in Pasolini, who was routinely accused of blasphemy. His 35-minute film, La ricotta, features Orson Welles as an American director shooting a film in Rome about Christ’s Passion. Over a tableau vivant inspired by a Caraveggesque painting of the Deposition, Welles cries out: “Get those crucified bastards out of here!”
The film led to a suspended prison sentence in 1963 for Pasolini on blasphemy charges. Pasolini’s wretched death a decade later was somehow foretold in his work. On the morning of 2 November 1975, in slumlands outside Rome, the 53-year-old director was found beaten beyond recognition and run over by his Alfa Romeo.