A Political Passion Play: Review of The New Gospel

Photo by Plakat © Port au Prince Pictures 2020.

Passion plays are theatrical reenactments of the suffering of Jesus Christ: his trial, the Stations of the Cross, and finally, the crucifixion on Calvary, outside the city walls of Jerusalem. In many Catholic regions, this dramatic display of devotion is publicly performed during Lent and is often staged as a partly educational, partly entertaining spectacle that involves many actors in historic costumes, wailing extras, and hundreds or even thousands of spectators at the roadside along the Via Crucis. Passion plays—or Easter pageants, as they are annually staged, for example, in the Philippines, Malta, Spain, Brazil, Thailand, and Sri Lanka—are rarely linked to a political message or an artistic claim beyond the religiously inspired historic recreation of Christ’s ordeal.

In his film The New Gospel (2020), Milo Rau stages a passion play in Matera, in the Basilicata region of southern Italy. In 2019, Matera was pronounced the European capital of culture, and when Rau was commissioned to perform an artwork in this context, he inscribed himself into the “strong cinematographic tradition of the region.” And indeed, with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il vangolo secondo Matteo (The gospel according to St. Matthew; 1964) and Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ (2004), two of the most famous “Jesus films” in film history were shot in Matera. The Sassi (“stones”) districts of Matera are built on natural caves that have been inhabited for millennia; they form part of a unique labyrinth of limestone churches, monasteries, winding stairways, and stone alleys that resemble the old city of Jerusalem. But why would the founder of a theater and film production company, called the International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM) and arguably one of the most innovative directors in Europe, be interested in a Bible epic?

Milo Rau is the author of more than fifty plays, films, books, and acts; he is most famous for his multimodal artistic reenactments, video installations and theater performances in which he takes up historical topics and restages authenticated scenes. In Hate Radio (2011), for example, Rau rebuilds a radio studio and has actors reenact parts of the program of Kigali radio station RTLM that played a crucial role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Based on transcripts of the broadcasts that incited ordinary citizens to take part in the massacres of their Tutsi (and moderate Hutu) neighbors, as well as on interviews and court minutes, Hate Radio explores what Hannah Arendt (1963) so aptly called the “banality of evil.” While some perceive Rau as an analyst of the neocolonial world order, others criticize his works as sensationalist endeavors that exploit and aestheticize human suffering and trigger extreme emotions for the sake of artistic attainment (see Muscionico 2009).

So when he took up the topic of a Bible adaptation for The New Gospel, it was obvious that Milo Rau, like in previous projects, would address painful issues and openly denounce social injustices. He identified those whom he considered the most disadvantaged and marginalized in contemporary south Italian society and collaborated with local NGOs and activist groups to offer them an additional platform for their political struggle. For Rau, Jesus was a revolutionary, and Rau's own objective is to translate the biblical message of social justice and equality to the present day.

“The wretched of the Earth,” according to The New Gospel, are the approximate 500,000 illegalized migrant workers from various sub-Saharan countries who toil in the tomato fields for a pittance, without access to decent accommodations or health care, or prospect for a legal residence status. Rau takes their current situation with the reenacted passion play and symbolically links it to the biblical narrative. Hence, Jesus is a black activist called Yvan Signet, his disciples are migrant farmworkers, and other roles are played by smallholders who fight against the mafia, local policemen, politicians, former prostitutes, and so on. The tagline of the film reads:

What would Jesus preach in the 21st century? Who would his apostles be? With “The New Gospel” Milo Rau and his team return to the gospel's origins and stage it as a passion play for an entire population. Together with Yvan Sagnet, a former farmworker and activist from Cameroon, Milo Rau creates a new gospel for the 21st century: A manifesto of solidarity for the poorest, a cinematic uprising for a fairer, more humane world.

If The New Gospel can be considered a passion play, it most certainly is a political passion play. Milo Rau’s way of working is reminiscent of collaborative, activist ethnographic research in the sense that he works together with local actors in developing and co-authoring a script and then staging the scenes worked out together. This is an established research practice in collaborative ethnographic filmmaking or in cooperations between theater producers or dancers and anthropologists that more or less traces back to Jean Rouch (Sjöberg 2008; Gruber 2016). The process of jointly developing a script or screenplay and then rehearsing and performing it is a crucial part of artistic research and (anthropological) knowledge production in general; the negotiations that accompany such joint activities are therefore habitually included in the final work and contribute to a (self-)reflexive mode.

In the case of The New Gospel, such self-referential scenes include castings and rehearsals, but also arguments among the actors, the preparation and conducting of political protests, and so on. In the final film, “making of” scenes from the shooting and the planning of activist actions alternate. Potentially pathetic scenes, such as the temptation of Jesus by Satan, are recurrently interrupted in a Brechtian manner as if to highlight that the intention and goal of the film is not the staging of a passion play, but that the passion play is a means to draw attention to the desperate situation of the protagonists and their political struggle (as well as underlying racist tendencies in Italian society). The performances themselves also contain elements of Augusto Boal’s (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed in which marginalized actors express (and reinterpret) their deprivation and the audience become “spect-actors.” In The New Gospel, local performers reenact various bible scenes and reappropriate scenarios to comment on their own situation. For example, in one scene, tomatoes that have been harvested under unfair conditions are poured out and crushed by the “apostles” in public, just like Jesus knocked over the stalls in the temple to protest against profit-making and commercialization.

The reenactments are used as an emancipatory gesture that allows participants and performers to stage the past in reaction to a conflicted present. Of late, reenactment has increasingly attracted scholarly attention, not only as a way of exploring the epistemic or transformative potential of practices such as living history and battle reenactment, but also, and perhaps more intriguingly, as a concept that enters into conversation with ritual, performance, mimesis, replication, rehearsal, and imitation (Kalshoven 2012; Dreschke et al. 2016; Schäuble 2019; Vium 2017). Ethnographers and historians alike have appropriated reenactment as a tool, “seeing in it the possibility for furthering historical understanding by acknowledging the essential otherness of historical agents and conveying this awareness through sympathetic and differentiated studies of the liminal and the everyday,” as cultural historian Vanessa Agnew (2004, 329) states. While reenactment’s epistemological claim that experience furthers understanding—be it historical or ethnographic—is not unproblematic, it is worth acknowledging it as a form of public history that contributes to more dynamic and accessible ways of conveying knowledge about the past and its interpretation and appropriation in the present.

Rau recurrently makes use of reenactment’s potential and includes it as a vital component in his aesthetic program of “global realism,” defined as an art form that paints a ruthlessly realistic portrait of the present day against the background of globalization (Rau 2018). As an artist, rather than an academic, he uses his research to propagate his political agenda openly. In researching and shooting The New Gospel, Rau and the IIPM—in collaboration with the main protagonist Yvan Sagnet’s organization, NoCap—initiated the campaign Rivolta della Dignità (Revolt of Dignity), a movement against exploitation and discrimination. Sagnet’s NoCap campaigns against “caporalato,” which stands for the illegal hiring and abusive exploitation of workers that is often associated with mafia organizations in southern Italy, and manufactures their own food brand that is advertised in the film and on the film's website. The joint campaign Rivolta della Dignità—which also collaborates with a number of other NGO's—draws up a six-point political manifesto in which they declare unconditional human and environmental dignity.

Rau intertwines this political agenda with his artistic plan. One can sense his almost child-like fascination with his cinematographic predecessors throughout The New Gospel. In the film’s opening scene, Rau can be seen together with the main protagonist pointing at the hill opposite the ancient city and explaining that the holes where Pasolini and Mel Gibson put up the crosses during their filming are still there. “One ‘click’ and we can put up our cross there, too.” He even managed to cast Enrique Irazoqui, who played Jesus in Pasolini’s film, as John the Baptist, and Maia Morgenstern, who played Maria in Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, plays Maria. There are several scenes in the film when he and his crew watch Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew on a big screen as a reference to their approach.

Rau seems more interested in film history than in the sociopolitical and economic history of Matera and Lucania (today’s Basilicata region) itself—a history that is worth further exploring. Called “La vergogna d'Italia,” “the shame of Italy,” in the 1950s, Matera is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth. Back then, roughly fifteen thousand people and their livestock were still living in these caves in abject poverty with no natural light, electricity, or water. In 1945, writer, painter, and medical doctor Carlo Levi, who had been arrested and exiled to the province of Matera due to his involvement with anti-fascist movements, published a memoir. In Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ stopped at Eboli), he described the poverty and desolation of the local population in such a vivid, haunting manner that a wave of political consequences followed: from 1952 onward, the remaining inhabitants of Matera's Sassi were evacuated (or evicted) and resettled in a newly built residential area named La Martella, leaving Matera vastly abandoned. Italian authorities also commissioned photographers, such as Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson, to document life in the Sassi; the photographs (1951/1952) were to accompany a report by the commission for the study of the city and agriculture in Matera, in collaboration with Italy's National Urban Planning Institute, which implemented the resettlement of the Matera’s Sassi dwellers. This was only one of several (visual) research projects on poverty and campaigns against illiteracy in southern Italy, sponsored by the Parliamentary Commission and carried out jointly by North American and Italian social scientists. Another included a UNICEF-UNESCO assignment with photographs taken by David Seymour (Chim) in 1950 and published alongside Carlo Levi's text.

The title of Levi's (1974) book, Christ Stopped at Eboli, derives from a local colloquial expression, “Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli,” which means “that they feel they have been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself—that they have somehow been excluded from the full human experience” (Levi 1974). Like Cartier-Bresson and Seymour with their photographs, Levi advocated that the people of the Mezzogiorno were victims of “Italy's ‘Southern Question’” (Schneider 1998) which was used as justification for heavy government interventions which amplified the vast disparities between north and south.

Unfortunately, by focusing solely on the African migrants’ struggle, Milo Rau leaves this part of Italy’s invidious past untouched. I do not intend to relativize one injustice (the living and working conditions of African migrants) on the basis of another injustice (the systematic exploitation of the rural population in southern Italy). Rather, this would have been a chance in Milo Rau’s activist approach to point out the continuation of this systematic exploitation in the Mezzogiorno, Italy’s south, and build on previous radical forms of revolutionary thinking.

The region around Matera is one of the hot spots of anti-fascist social criticism; ignoring the works of Italian activist social philosophers and/or anthropologists such as Antonio Gramsci, Carlo Levi, and Ernesto De Martino, all of whom campaigned for the rights of the subaltern classes, in a project that claims to support worker’s rights, is a gross neglect. The absence of Christ has been inscribed in the natural as well as intellectual Lucanian landscape. While Levi took up the locals’ claim that “Christ stopped at Eboli,” Milo Rau (unconsciously?) made Christ return, or rather go beyond Eboli. He could have made productive use of this complex symbolic and concrete historical connotation. Unfortunately, this is a layer of analysis that evades Rau's The New Gospel.


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