Like Pasolini and Mel Gibson before him, Milo Rau journeys to the Italian city of Matera to shoot the tale of Christ’s Passion. But Rau’s Christ is a modern-day political and anti-slavery activist, his apostles are migrants, and the witnesses to (and participants in) the crucifixion are Matera’s townsfolk and tourists. The New Gospel world-premieres in Venice Giornate degli Autori.
When controversial Swiss director Milo Rau was asked to participate in Matera’s European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2019, he knew exactly the story that he wanted to tell, that of Christ in the days leading up to his crucifixion. The dramatic white-walled town of Matera in southern Italy was also the backdrop for Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).
Rau cast the Cameroonian Yvan Sagnet (then aged 33) as Christ. Sagnet is a political activist who, at the age of 26, led an uprising against modern slave masters who were exploiting migrant workers in the region of Puglia. “Yvan was the most known activist against the Mafia and the exploitation of the workers in the tomato and orange fields, and so I asked him to play his role,” confirms the director.
As significantly, when Rau went to Matera for research purposes and saw the refugee camps close by, he knew exactly who we wanted to cast as Christ’s apostles in his future film, the economic migrants who were working in similar conditions to those Sagnet had revolted against back in 2011.
The film follows Sagnet in parallel roles. As a firebrand leader who is charismatic, passionate and authoritative in equal measure, he organises a renewed strike of labourers (a “battle for salvation” and a “revolt of dignity”) to protest against low wages, subprime working conditions and poor housing, leading them into Matera and advocating publicly for their rights.
But Sagnet is also a very convincing actor as Christ, exuding majesty and authority within all the familiar New testament scenes, whether in preventing the stoning of the Magdalena, breaking bread with his disciples during the Last Supper or within the very moving crucifixion sequence itself. And as in all versions of the tale, he is denied by Peter and betrayed by Judas.
“I was interested not only in the political content but also the dramaturgical content of this New Testament where you have a leader that is sometimes very strong but is betrayed by the people who are following him,” says director Rau. “So there is a very interesting and complex analysis of the functioning of a [small] revolutionary group, the tensions you have, the betrayals you have, the love you have.”
Events from the biblical story are replicated among the latter day disciples. The entry into Jerusalem becomes a procession of protesting migrants while Christ’s anger in the temple is reflected in the protesters’ overturning of the supermarket shelves that display the jars of tomatoes they had picked not long before. Rau’s Mary Magdalen is a migrant who was forced to become sex worker after arriving in Italy.
“We had a lot of translations of biblical scenes into political scenes [within] this parallel analysis,” comments Rau. “That is how the dramaturgy of the film is in my opinion interweaving the political and the iconographical line.”
Rau is no stranger to inspired polemics. His 2017 The Congo Tribunal, also produced by Arne Birkenstock of Fruitmarket Arts and Media, was a documentary and transmedia art project that brought together victims, perpetrators, witnesses and analysts of the Congo War in Bukavu/ Eastern Congo, one month later presenting a 3-day civil tribunal in Berlin. In 2018, when casting actors for a portrait of Ghent based on the city’s ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ altarpiece, Rau placed a classified ad inviting IS jihadists, who had just returned from Syria, to apply.
The fusion of politics and biblical myth continues in The New Gospel as Rau further explains Sagnet’s influence over, and involvement in, its production. “Yvan made the first strike against the Mafia [in 2011], and I asked him how he did it because they have a strategy of divide et impera (divide and rule). All the different countries the refugees come from are played one against the other, for example the people from Sudan wouldn’t work together with the people from Kenya, and the people from Kenya wouldn’t work together with people from the Congo and so on.
“I asked him how he organised this tribe and he said ‘I had 12 sub-leaders, 12 people from different countries’, and I said ‘Ok, 12 sub-leaders, that’s 12 apostles. Let’s search the strike for our 12 apostles.”
He adds: “Jesus really was the leader of a landless movement, at the margins of the Roman empire, like we have the refugee crisis at the margins of the European empire, so you have a lot of parallels.”
Rau accompanies his visuals with marvellous musical choices, ranging from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion to Wagner’s Götterdamerung to modern songs of protest. There is also a resurrection of sorts within the film but presented in economic and retail terms, and is both entertaining and satisfying.
Reference to the cinematic work of Pasolini and Gibson is limited. Of Pasolini he notes: “You could say that I adopt somehow the aesthetics of neo-realism… On the other [hand] what I completely miss in the Pasolini film is a political message. It’s not in it at all. He really made a more than sentimental interpretation of the Bible. It was the 60’s and it was quite revolutionary for the times, but for today I think you have to be different.”
One concession he makes to Pasolini is to have Christ face the town as he his crucified. In the Mel Gibson work, the town is visible behind the cross, which makes for a more dramatic shot, but lacking in emotional or psychological depth, Rau suggests. “Pasolini said Matera is humankind, so Jesus has to watch Matera… One [interpretation, that of Gibson] is very Hollywood, the other is a more European vision, it is a more philosophical statement, and of course I adopted the Pasolini statement.”
Of greatest importance to Rau is the project’s lasting legacy, as outlined in political and social terms. “What makes me most happy is that our film has made a real effect. As a consequence of the ‘revolt of dignity’, as you can see at the end of the film, the first ‘houses of dignity’ were founded around Matera,” Rau notes on Giornate degli Autori online. “Houses where the previously homeless protagonists of our film can now live in dignity and self-determination. And this with the support of the Catholic Church!”