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Pasolini’s 1963 Film on Palestine

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Pasolini recorded his observations in the documentary A Visit to Palestine while scouting locations for his moving biography of the life of Jesus, The Gospel of St Matthew.

The sophisticated hasbara / sophistry that created the hologram of  “democracy” and “chosenness” was the very first of  Israel’s chief exports (to be followed by human organ smuggling, pornography, espionage  and  shocking weapons) and that it was and is a very “successful” endeavor in every part of globe, meant to convince not only hawks and politicos, but the academic world. Could Pasolini’s ambiguity re the brutal colonial nature of Zionism be due to the fact that in the 50s and 60s he and many intellectuals saw Israel as a progressive experiment in socialism that needed time to live up to expectations? The halo effect over Israel still hangs on in Europe and the USA for decades after al-Nakba.

Although the true nature of Zionism was little known in the West for decades– either in popular culture or among the intelligentsia — the mask of righteousness has slipped off Israel’s PR-drenched narrative and a truly demonic face has been glimpsed by more people than ever before.

Could these two films of Pasolini’s — one celebrating Jesus’ life, and one recording contemporary Palestine — be connected to Pasolini’s very tragic, unexpected and unsolved murder?


Pasolini filming Palestine

APRIL 15, 2010
by South/South   Be sure to check out the entire South/South blog – it’s brilliant.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1963 film Sopralluoghi in Palestina (English title: A Visit to Palestine, though it would be more accurate to call it Scouting for Locations in Palestine) showcases the director’s preparation for filming The Gospel According to St. Matthew. (Parenthetically, in Italian the latter film’s title is Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, about which my film professor has posed a good question: do Italians erase the ‘saint’ in Matthew’s title or is Pasolini being irreverent?) The film is more evocative and personal than the average making-of documentary that often accompanies a major film as a voyeuristic sidebar. It is also not without its problems on the question of Palestine.

It’s clear from the outset that Pasolini is filming here because he is fed up with the industrial world: you can’t shoot a film about Christ near Milanese factories. He has come here for the Jesus ‘look.’ It’s not an aberration to point this out since it’s a stake Pasolini constantly claims: only in the Terra Santa itself can he strike the ‘poetic and archaic… extreme smallness, poverty and humility.’ His favorite part of the journey is a narrow strip close to Jordan because that’s ‘where Jesus spent his last days.’

In a rapid, breathy voice-over that runs the entire course of the film, Pasolini sounds almost like a tourist, both eager and disappointed to find comparisons with sites and sounds from home. He compares the rolling, grassy landscape of Palestine to southern, rural Italian cities like Bari, Calabria and Sicilia. Unfortunately, while he is certainly not the average tourist and though he does struggle some to decode what he sees, one gets the sense that he’s not really struggling enough—at least not any more than necessary to furnish scenes for his film. Coming to terms with not being able to film in ‘modern’ Nazareth, he says in a defeated tone: ‘You understand that in this period of our trip, I had set out as a problem, as the purpose of my research, the finding of those villages, places and faces which could replace modern villages, faces, places.’ (Avrai capito che in questo periodo del nostro viaggio, io mi ero posto come problema, come scopo della mia ricerca, il trovare dei villaggi, dei luoghi, delle facce, che potessero sostituire i villaggi, le facce, i luoghi moderni.)

His scouting tour takes him to much of pre-1967 Palestine/Israel, from the Jewish kibbutzim to the habitats of impoverished Palestinian farmers. While he interviews a young family at a kibbutz at length (conducted in Italian) he never films himself talking at length to Arabs. There is the linguistic problem, of course, but this distancing act reinforces something troubling that Pasolini repeats at least twice in the film: the Palestinians just seem ‘more authentic.’ They are ‘allegre, animalistiche‘—happy and animalistic—far closer to his archaic Gospel characters than the new inhabitants of the modern settlements/colonies dotting the hillsides.

Indeed, it can often seem like Pasolini takes the colonial project for granted. In the poem ‘The Southern Dawn’ (L’Alba Meridionale),* published a year after the trip to Palestine, he writes about finding ‘millions of men employed only to live as barbarians descended recently on a happy land, strangers to it, and its owners’ (milioni di uomini occupati / soltanto a vivere come barbari discesi / da poco su una terra felice, estranei / ad essa, e suoi possessori). Are the recent Jewish immigrants the ‘barbarians’ descending in ‘millions’ on a ‘happy land’? How does Pasolini reconcile their relationship to this land as both ‘strangers’ and biblical ‘owners’? The film is fraught with these same unanswered musings.

In this screen grab, Pasolini stands in front of a map of Jerusalem, surrounded by those likely objects of his disdain, modern advertisements for cigarettes. It’s hard to pinpoint a poetics to Pasolini’s critiques, but if there is one solid critique it is, again, his disappointment at what has become of his imagined Palestine. For the most part, his monologue is deeply concerned with the technical and aesthetic concerns of making his film. But the jabs he makes about modern, industrial Israel can be found if one is looking for them. They express sorrow at a lost aura he is sore that small, white Israeli settler/colonial houses on the plains appear soulless and uniform. ‘You could easily find [them] in the Roman countryside, or in Switzerland.’

One of the most moving moments is Pasolini in a Bedouin desert, encroached on ‘day by day by the Israelis.’ The footage is beautiful, but as he says again in that breathy disappointment, unusable.The Bedouins make look authentic, and they may even be the victims of colonialism and land grabs, but he still hasn’t found what he’s come looking for.

Where Pasolini’s musings lack any overt colonial critique, the camera highlights it. The shots of Jerusalem surrounded by barbed wire are particularly compelling. As Pasolini’s voiceover expresses awe at the natural beauty of these surroundings, the camerawork displays the indignities of everyday life for Palestinian inhabitants. As seen above, the camera zooms in and out of a shot of birds perched on top of barbed wire, in and out and in and out, a syntactical repetition of a sublime and sordid reality.

*Thanks to http://www.twitter.com/revsocialist for sending me the reference to that poem.

(All screengrabs by South/South)