Pier Paolo Pasolini was assassinated in 1975 at age 53. He was the Socratic conscience of Italy. His tombstone is a stake through the heart of his country. He wrote dozens of books, poetry, novels, plays, screenplays, political commentary and cultural criticism.
And then there are the 20 or so films he made between 1961 and 1975. At least two of them -- The Gospel According to Matthew and Arabian Nights -- are among the very greatest films ever made. He was the same age as Shakespeare at his death. And Pasolini seems to me great in the same way as Shakespeare. His murder even now, 37 years later, on the 90th anniversary year of his birth, is still monstrously unacceptable.
I have written about Arabian Nights in "Many Dreams: Or Persistence," published last month here to celebrate the re-election of President Obama and the release by Criterion Collection of Pasolini's Trilogy of Life, which includes Arabian Nights.
Then there is that other great film.
Pasolini became world renowned in 1964 with the opening of his film about Jesus: The Gospel According to Matthew. It was reviewed in Life magazine, at that time America's major weekly picture magazine. In the review, the critic, Richard Schickel, called it "The Greatest Movie Ever Made." That superlative was sincere but also a nod of a Bronx cheer to another movie about Jesus from that time, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Hollywood's leaden star-studded epic, with John Wayne in a bit part as a centurion.
I fell in love with The Gospel According to Matthew when I first saw it in 1966 and then with other works of Pasolini. In 1973 I started studying Italian to translate his poetry. In November 1975 he was killed. The next month, a friend, Luciano Martinengo, and I began translating his poetry.
The result is the book Pier Paolo Pasolini: Poems
The Museum of Modern Art in New York is presenting all of Pasolini's films, from December 13 to January 5.
See them there or buy the DVDs.
Countless books could be written about The Gospel According to Matthew.
Meanwhile, here is a documentary poem about it. It's all true!
The Greatest Movie Ever Made
Stuck in Roman traffic
for the funeral of Pope John
at a moment when the whole world
was in his hands
Pier Paolo Pasolini thought to do
"Christ plus 2,000 years of mythologizing,"
The Gospel According to Matthew,
which means from Bach to Missa Luba,
Eisenstein's Nevsky soldiers in the same
shot as Piero della Francesca's pharisees.
Finally a genius
is telling the story of Jesus
a "never orthodox Marxist"
There are moments when you simply must accept
the author's decency, the dignity of his subjects:
cutting away as Mary great with child
onto the donkey...
it is a miracle, cutting--
Does she simply appear on the donkey in a puff?
the camera cuts away to two
boys looking intently, sadly,
everything being montage,
as Eisenstein said.
Jesus is before us in the form
of a Spanish economics student,
surrounded by a Jewish fishmonger
from the Roman slums as Peter,
Pier Paolo's mother as the old Mary,
poets and writers and professors
and semiologists and whores
and communists and boys from the slums
and old women who believe.
Who is my mother, who are my brethren?
Sartre knew when he saw.
Sartre had written a play,
his first, in a German POW camp
about the birth of Jesus
and seeing The Gospel
22 years later
embraced the Italian
as his brother
for the Marxists.
PPP lived in a miraculous era
before the VCR,
age still of movie house communion,
time of the major deaths,
Pope John, JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King,
Robert Kennedy so like Pasolini in so many ways--
Bobby went into filthy hovels
and embraced sickly babies--
Pound, Allende, Neruda
the saviors of our century
then Sartre and Beauvoir,
seeking salvation for the century, the millennium.
Pasolini made the film of the millennium,
The Gospel According to Matthew.
Sartre and Beauvoir agree to see him after the Paris premiere.
He is very late to the cafe. But they are there.
S: "How could you think we wouldn't wait for you?"
In those days, not so far
from ours, they had all the time.
Copyright © 2003, 2012 by Norman MacAfee
First published in PEN America, 2003.
Note: some facts in the poem come from Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini, Oswald Stack, Pasolini, Barth Schwartz, Pasolini Requiem, Richard Schickel Life, March 11, 1966.