Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Plan for a Film about Saint Paul"

The following extract by Pier Paolo Pasolini generously provided by Verso Books from their new release, "St. Paul," the first English translation of Pasolini's screenplay about the apostle Paul.


Self-portrait, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1947

The poetic idea – which ought to become at the same time the conducting thread of the film – and also its novelty – consists in transposing the entire affair of Saint Paul to our time.

This does not mean that I want in any way to tamper with or alter the very letter of his preaching: on the contrary, as I have already done with the Gospel [of Matthew], none of the words pronounced by Paul in the film’s dialogue will be invented or reconstructed by analogy. And since it will naturally be necessary to make a selection from among the apostolic discourses of the saint, I will make this selection in a fashion that summarizes the entire arc of his apostolate (I will be aided in this by specialists, who guarantee the absolute fidelity to the entirety of the thought of Paul).

Why would I want to transpose his life on earth to our time? It is very simple: to present, cinematographically in the most direct and violent fashion, the impression and the conviction of his reality/ present. To say then explicitly to the spectator, without compelling him to think, that ‘Saint Paul is here, today, among us’, and that he is here almost physically and materially. That it is our society that he addresses; it is our society for which he weeps and that he loves, threatens and forgives, assaults and tenderly embraces.

Such temporal violence toward the life of Saint Paul, made to take place in the heart of the 1960s, naturally requires a long series of transpositions.

The first and most important of these transpositions consists in substituting for the conformism of Paul’s times (or better, the two conformisms: that of the Jews and that of the Gentiles), a con- temporary conformism, which will therefore be the conformism of present-day bourgeois civility, whether in its hypocritically and conventionally religious aspect (analogous to that of the Jews) or in its secular, liberal and materialist aspect (analogous to that of the Gentiles).

Such a large transposition, founded upon analogy, inevitably implies many others. In this game of transpositions, which are mutually implicated and therefore require a certain coherence, I would like nevertheless to keep myself free. Given, that is, that my first objective is that of faithfully representing the ecumenical apostolate of Saint Paul, I would like to be able to disoblige myself, too, from a certain external and literal coherence. Let me explain.

The world in which – in our film – Saint Paul lives and works is therefore the world of 1966 or ’67: as a consequence, it is clear that all of the place names need to be displaced. The centre of the modern world – the capital of colonialism and of modern imperialism – the seat of modern power over the rest of the earth – is not any longer, today, Rome. And if it isn’t Rome, what is it? It seems clear to me: New York, along with Washington. In the second place: the cultural, ideological, civil, in its own way religious centre – the sanctuary, that is, of enlightened and intelligent conformism – is no longer Jerusalem, but Paris. The city that is equivalent to the Athens of that moment, then, is in large measure the Rome of today (seen naturally as a city of grand historical but not religious tradition). And Antioch could probably be replaced, by analogy, by London (insofar as it is the capital of an imperial antecedent of American supremacy, just as the Macedonian–Alexandrian empire preceded the Roman empire).

The theatre of Saint Paul’s travels is, therefore, no longer the Mediterranean basin but the Atlantic.

Passing from geography to the social-historical reality: it is clear that Saint Paul revolutionarily crushed, with the simple power of his religious message, a kind of society founded on the violence of class, imperialism, and above all slavery; and therefore, as a con- sequence, it is clear that the Roman aristocracy and the various collaborationist ruling classes will be replaced by analogy with the modern bourgeois class that holds capital in its hands, while the humble and the downtrodden will be replaced by analogy with the bourgeoisie/liberals, the workers, the subproletariat of today.

Naturally, all of this will not be expressed so explicitly and didactically in the film!  Things, characters, surroundings will speak for themselves. And from this will emerge the newest and perhaps most poetic element of the film: the ‘questions’ which the evangelized will pose to Saint Paul will be questions of modern men – specific, detailed, uncertain, political questions, formulated in a language typical of our time; Saint Paul’s ‘answers’, by contrast, are what they are, that is exclusively religious, and moreover formulated in a language typical of Saint Paul: universal and eternal, but not current (in a narrow sense).

In this way the film will reveal through this process its profound thematic, which is the opposition between ‘the present ’ and ‘the holy’ – the world of history, which tends, in its excess of presence and urgency, to escape into mystery, into abstraction, into unalloyed interrogatives – and the world of the divine, which, in its religious abstractness, on the contrary, descends among men, becoming concrete and effective.

As far as the composition of the film is concerned, I would think of making of it an ‘episodic tragedy’ (according to Aristotle ’s old definition) since it seems obviously absurd to recount the life of Saint Paul entirely. It will be a matter of an entirety of significant and determinant episodes, recounted in a fashion that includes as much as possible the others as well.

At the beginning of each episode, which unfolds in our time, the real date (sixty-three or sixty-four years after Christ, etc., etc.) will be written; similarly, before the credit titles of the film, for clarification, a map with the actual itineraries of Saint Paul will be substituted for that of the ‘transposed ’ itineraries.

I list, schematically and out of order, some of the episodes which will in all probability constitute the narrative scaffolding of the film.

1 The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen

We are in Paris, during the Nazi occupation. Among the French, some are collaborationists, others protest passively, still others resist with arms (the Zealots). Saint Paul, a Pharisee, is a bourgeois profoundly interpolated in his society, by means of a long familial tradition: he is opposed to foreign domination solely in the name of a dogmatic and fanatical religion. He lives in a state of unaware insincerity, which, made to be sincere in his spirit to the point of convulsion, creates an almost-mad tension. The facts of the trial and the death of Stephen unfold exactly as they are narrated in the Acts of the Apostles – with the integration of other historical testimonies. No fact, no word will be invented or added. Only that, naturally, an ancient stoning will be treated as a modern lynching atrocity. But the dying Stephen will pronounce the same word of forgiveness. And Paul will hear it – present at the execution in order to represent official authority, which believes in its way to be liberated from the truth that comes to demolish it.

2 The Thunderbolt

As in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul requests to continue the persecution of Christians in Damascus. This is a city outside the domination of the Nazis – it could be in Spain, for example, Barcelona – where Peter and the other believers in Christ are taking refuge. The traversing of the desert is like the traversing of a symbolic desert: we are on the streets of a large European country, the countryside of the south of France, and then the Pyrenees, and then Catalonia, lost in the abyss without hope because of the war– in a silence, which can be made real and tangible by rendering the soundtrack of the film completely mute: in this way, to create fantastically and in a fashion still more anguished than reality, the idea of the desert. In any of these grand streets full of traffic and the usual acts of everyday life, but lost in the most total silence – Paul is seized by light. He falls, and hears the voice of his call.

He arrives blind at Barcelona. There he meets Ananias and the other Christian refugees; converted, he unites with them; he decides to retire to meditate in the desert.

3 The Idea of Preaching to the Gentiles

It is that which in ‘screenplays’ is called ‘consequence ’, Paul turns toward his new friends, already holy, fascinated by an impulse of love and inspired will, when his own idea overturns the situation and creates new and terrible difficulties and completely new perspectives: it is a true revolution within a revolution. I would like to reconstruct the concrete moment (even by inventing it, if a direct testimony does not exist) in which the new inspirational light descends upon Saint Paul.

It begins like this – and we see it in the first acts – this apostolate which is ‘a scandal for the Jews, folly for the Gentiles’ [1 Cor. 1:23].

4–5–6 Adventures in Preaching

A series of three or four ‘typical’ episodes from the first part of the preaching:  ‘typical’ and thus also representative of an entire series of other episodes that cannot be narrated. By the series of episodes of evangelization of people belonging to the well-to-do and cultivated classes, the preaching at Athens (which we have said would be replaced, by analogy, by modern Rome, sceptical, ironic, liberal) could be selected; while by the series of episodes of evangelization of simple people, two stories could be selected, one that concerns workers or artisans, the other the most filthy and abandoned subproletariat: or rather the story of the makers of silver ‘souvenirs’ in the temple (I think) of Venus, who see their profits diminish as a consequence of the discrediting of this temple, a destination for pilgrims; and the story of that group of poor devils who, in order to scrape together a living, pretend to know how to expel demons from those possessed by demons, as Paul and in the name of Paul, while they don’t succeed at this, and come to a bad end, etc., etc.

7 The Dream of the Macedonian

The episodes that I have described in the previous paragraph could all take place in Italy: now Paul proceeds toward the North. The dream of the Macedonian can be thus replaced by analogy with a ‘dream of the German’.

Paul sleeps one of his painful sleeps of illness, which reduces him to lamentation as if in a delirium. And it is here that, in the deep peace of the dream, a most beautiful figure appears to him: a young German: blond, strong, youthful. He talks to Paul, he demands that he come to Germany: his call, which lists the real problems of Germany, and with which Germany needs help, sounds unreal ‘inside ’ that holy dream. He speaks of neocapitalism, which satisfies only the material well-being, which withers; of the Nazi revival; of the substitution of blindly technical interests for the ideal interests of classical Germany, etc., etc. But, while he speaks like this, this blond and strong young man, little by little – as if something external to him is physically representing the interiority and the truth – becomes ever more pale, overcome, devoured by a mysterious illness: slowly left half nude, horribly thin, he falls to earth, curls up: he becomes one of the dreadful living carcasses of the concentration camp …

As if this dream were continuing, we see Saint Paul who, obeying this desperate call, is in Germany: he walks with the swift and secure steps of the Saint, along an immense highway that leads toward the heart of Germany …

(I am prolonging this point because it is here that the theme of the film, in a fantastical visual mode, is grounded – that will be above all developed in the final part of the film, the martyrdom in Rome/New York: that is, the contract between the ‘present ’ question addressed to Paul and his holy ‘answer’.)

8 The Religious and Political Passion from Jerusalem to Caesarea

Paul is again at Jerusalem (Paris). Here begins that concatenation of violent and dramatic episodes, which are so well-known that one ought to sum them up rapidly: it involves a series of the most dramatic sequences of the film – that conclude at Caesarea (Vichy) with Paul’s request to be judged at Rome.

9 Saint Paul at Rome

This is the longest and richest episode of the film. In New York we are in the belly of the modern world: there the ‘presentness’ of problems involves violence and an absolute obviousness. The corruption of the ancient pagan world, mixed with the uneasiness deriving from the confused feeling of the end of such a world – is replaced by a new and desperate corruption, which is to say the atomic desperation (neurosis, drugs, radical social conflict). The state of injustice that dominates in a slave society like that of imperial Rome can be symbolized by racism and the condition of blacks. It is the world of power, the immense richness of monopolies, on the one hand, and on the other, of anguish, of the will to die, of the desperate struggle of the blacks, whom Saint Paul happens to be evangelizing. And the more ‘holy’ his answer, the more it upsets, contradicts, and transforms the present reality. Saint Paul ends up thus in an American prison, and comes to be condemned to death. His execution will not be described naturalistically (replacing, as usual, by analogy, decapitation with the electric chair): but it will have mythic and symbolic qualities of a remembrance, like the fall in the desert. Saint Paul will suffer martyrdom in the middle of the bustle of a suburb of a large city, modern to the breaking-point, with its suspension bridges, its skyscrapers, its immense and crushing crowd, which passes without stopping in front of the spectacle of death and continues to whirl around, through its enormous streets, indifferent, hostile, without meaning. But in this world of steel and cement, the word ‘God’ resounds (or starts to resound).

Your opinion

Please login to add a new comment.