Elizabeth Castelli, Barnard’s Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Religion, has just published the first English translation of an unproduced screenplay by the legendary and controversial Italian filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini. St. Paul was a pet project of Pasolini’s, but the film was never made, though the script was published in Italian in 1977 by the noted Milanese publishing house, Einaudi. Although Pasolini had routinely drawn ire from the Italian government and Catholic Church for the sexual and anti-clerical content of his work, he nevertheless reworked St. Paul multiple times from 1966 until 1974, the year before his notorious murder outside Rome. The screenplay maps the story of the first-century apostle, St. Paul, onto the political landscape of the mid 20th century. In the New Testament, Paul begins as a Pharisee and a robust opponent of the followers of Jesus, but experiences a dramatic revelation that leads him to travel throughout the Mediterranean preaching the gospel of Christ. In Pasolini’s version, Paul is a Vichy government collaborationist with the Nazis; after his “conversion” he suffers imprisonment, preaches in various European capitals, eventually landing in New York, where he preaches his version of the gospel (namely, anti-capitalism) to post-World War II Americans. Throughout the screenplay, the portrait of Paul shows two sides of the man: a suffering mystic and an institutional founder. Here, Castelli discusses the significance of the screenplay and Pasolini, and explains why she was drawn to this text.
As a scholar of early Christianity, you pay particular attention to “afterlives” of Bible texts—how Biblical stories are reinvented and retold to fit contemporary issues and scenarios. What is unique about Pasolini’s telling of the story of St. Paul, and what drew you to translate this particular text?
In recent years, continental philosophers—among them, Jacob Taubes, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou—have turned their attention to Paul, seeing in his first-century letters a resource for political theology. I had been reading these philosophers in preparation for an essay I was writing, when I learned of Pasolini’s screenplay about Paul. I had begun to conclude that Paul functions as a Rorschach test for these thinkers; each produces a version of Paul that maps more or less with precision upon his own commitments and worldviews. In any case, what makes Pasolini’s Paul distinctive is Pasolini’s insistence that Paul was, at root, a split subject: a visionary who experienced revelation as a form of bodily sickness (playing on the famous New Testament account of Paul’s conversion on the road to Jericho, where he is struck blind) but also a ruthless institution builder. Not surprisingly, Pasolini embraces the visionary side of Paul (“the saint”) and condemns Paul the institutional man (“the founder of the Church”). Indeed, I go so far as to argue that Pasolini’s screenplay is, in some measure at least, an autobiographical creation.
How does Pasolini’s St. Paul compare to other well-known reimaginings of the story in popular culture?
Popular culture’s reimagining of early Christian figures does not devote nearly as much time to Paul as it does to Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, or Mary of Magdala. The most striking representation for me comes from another controversial adaptation of the New Testament: the Martin Scorsese film adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In the fantasy part of the story—as the dying Jesus sees the future he will never experience—the Jesus-who-didn’t-die confronts Paul, who is in the midst of preaching about the resurrected Christ. In this version of the story, Paul asserts against the protests of Jesus, “I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed. If I have to crucify you to save the world, then I’ll crucify you. And if I have to resurrect you, then I’ll do that too.” It is obviously, in some sense, a scandalous representation, and yet it also gets at something profound about the critical role of Paul in the spread of what will eventually become “Christianity.” In both the Kazantzakis/Scorsese version and in the Pasolini version, Paul performs the work of a religious founder, but where Kazantzakis/Scorsese portray him as uniformly zealous in his mission, Pasolini preserves a more fractured portrait. Both portraits are provocative, and certainly, Pasolini’s Paul offers a stark theopolitical critique of Pasolini’s own time.
In the introduction to your translation of St. Paul (Verso, 2014), you write: “It is not generally defensible (or productive or interesting) to pay much attention to the biographies of writers and artists when analysing and interpreting their work, and yet with Pasolini, one feels called to make an exception…” What is it about Pasolini’s life and work that calls for this exception?
First of all, we know from the rest of the Pasolini archive—poetry, novels, plays, letters, journalism—that Pasolini long identified with the figure of Paul, so it may be worth paying attention to the autobiographical impulse in the screenplay itself. Second, the rich oeuvre that Pasolini left behind after his death —the literary writings, translations, films, and journalism—was only part of his artistic production. The self that Pasolini crafted was also part of his creative endeavor, and it was a self that sought—like the art—to intervene into the cultural and political contests of his own time. There are some who go so far as to christen Pasolini himself as a prophet or a saint, so he cannot easily be divorced from the work he created.
There has been renewed interest lately in Pasolini. Why do you think that is?
There has been a lot of interest in recent years in Pasolini—the 2012 retrospective of his films at MOMA in New York; the 2011 collaboration between La MaMa Experimental Theatre of New York and La MaMa Umbria International devoted to a staged version of the St. Paul screenplay; the very recent bilingual edition of his selected poetry, translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli and published by the University of Chicago Press; the 2014 film by Abel Ferrara about Pasolini’s last day, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will screen at the New York Film Festival; a solo exhibition of paintings by the British artist Ged Quinn, which was inspired by Pasolini’s Saint Paul, to name just a few. Why this interest? I think Pasolini has always been an extremely enigmatic figure who seduces, provokes, entices, and infuriates in equal measures. There is no question that he was a genius. Some people are drawn to his political critique, including his condemnation of neocapitalism and consumerism (which he called “a genuine anthropological cataclysm”); others are drawn to his mythic, poetic vision as it emerges in so much of his poetry and in a masterpiece like his The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Ultimately, I think we are living in a time of great political and cultural contradiction, and such moments require unlikely imaginative resources and even their own saints. By “saints” I mean figures whose refusals of convention and conformity provoke both exasperation and admiration but also open up a space for imagining a world in other terms—and Pasolini is one such figure.