Saint Paul: A Screenplay
By Pier Paolo Pasolini, translated by Elizabeth A. Castelli
Reviewed by Brady Evan Walker
Originally published in Steadfast magazine
Between May and June 1968, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote the outline for a screenplay on the life of Paul of Tarsus. The explicitly sexual themes of his mid-career work and his unsavory leftist political reputation worked against Pasolini, and even though his third film, The Gospel According to Matthew ranks in the Vatican’s List of 45 Great Films, Saint Paul never could find funding. We finally have a translation of his initial treatment and the subsequent outline, first published in Italian in 1977, two years after Pasolini’s murder.
Pasolini’s mashup of Biblical scenarios in contemporary settings politicizes scripture and explores two sides of Paul: the Saint and the Priest. From a 1974 interview:
“…insofar as [Paul] is a mystic, that’s all right…but rather I violently condemn him as the founder of the Church, with all the negative elements of the Church already present: the sexophobia, the anti-feminism, the organization, the collars, the triumphalism, the moralism. In sum all the things that have created the evil of the Church are all already in him.”
In the form it was left, the outline reads like a prose poem reimagined in 112 parts, Pasolini’s own annotated cut-up of the wide cloth of Pauline scripture, transposed to contemporary Europe and the US, recasting Paul as a communist. “Saint” could sub for “Revolutionary,”“Priest” for “Dictator.” This kind of juxtaposition would later be used to great (and shocking) effect with his short career’s masterful capstone, Salò or 120 Days of Sodom, which replaces Sade’s perverted, circa 1715 libertines with demented, powerful Italian Fascists in 1944.
Pasolini promised to put only Paul’s words in Paul’s mouth, without manipulation or revision. He does this. Sort of.
But take for instance the sexual tension between Paul and Timothy when they first meet: while Paul preaches to a crowd of unimpressed Romans he keeps eye contact with a beautiful boy (Timothy) who will become his closest companion.
The chemistry floats to the surface throughout as Paul stares down needle-in-the-stack Timothy, who grips his skinny girlfriend’s hand, rapt with Paul “terrifying and almost livid--by who knows what mysterious engorgement of his spirit,” as he preaches against sexual misconduct. When his sermon is complete, Paul approaches Timothy:
‘Do you want to follow me?’
The boy answers right away, without thinking about it:
‘First I will circumcise you--even if it is in contradiction to my
conviction--in deference to the Jews of this city, who know that you are of
a Greek father.’
The boy looks at him, obediently. In Paul there is the arrogance of the
It bears mentioning that this scene immediately follows a heated debate wherein Paul disavows any Jewish traditions that might spook the Gentiles he seeks to convert—foremost, circumcision—a scandal to the Christians who wish to obey Talmudic law completely.
The contemporariness of Pasolini’s mashup was intended as entirely visual: New York, 1967 would’ve been, in film logic, Rome, 67 AD. The anachronisms work wonder when re-contextualizing Paul’s mysticism in the spirit of a revolutionary, especially in the scenes of Stoics and Epicureans smoking in cafes, psychoanalyzing Paul’s preaching, which can be read as both sincere critique of Paul and a parody of the intellectual class.
But there are points of incoherence. Pasolini tries a way-too-subtly-implied switcheroo of the Jews/Gentiles dichotomy with a divide between the religious and the liberal secular bourgeoisie.
It’s a much more loaded shell game than trading Rome for NYC: the scenario takes place explicitly amid the eddish of World War II. Paul’s story relies on battling a cultural behemoth, but Judaism was not the Goliath of the 60s; Christianity was, and it’s not even Judaism Pasolini’s attacking, it’s modern capitalism.
While staying true to Paul’s written word works poignantly elsewhere, caving in and replacing “Jews” for something like “religious capitalists” (though maybe something cooler sounding) would’ve well served the eventual script, had it been written.
The heft of stories ending with the protagonist’s assassination trends toward a bereaved triumph over the enemy whose last-ditch effort only strengthens the resolve of the good guys, as in, of course, the Gospels. Or take for instance Milk, in which Harvey Milk, mayor of San Francisco and prominent gay rights activist, is assassinated for his views though the gay rights movement is destined to succeed beyond its mournful loss, which fact is emphasized in the film’s conclusion.
If Paul functions as a stand-in for a mid-century communist revolutionary fighting the societal ills of capitalist extravagance and oppression, then his death is all the more upsetting, because unlike the narrative trope of the downtrodden’s triumph over their oppressors, the larger class, the capitalist hordes Paul’s out to evangelize, will never get their comeuppance, not even in a story of mythic scope like this.
The largest difference between the short initial treatment and the longer outline contained here is Paul’s death: the latter, political gun-down á la MLK Jr. (Pasolini hoped to film this scene in the actual hotel where King was shot, which happened just two days before the outline was finished) and the former, state-sponsored electrocution, thus described:
“Saint Paul will suffer martyrdom [by electric chair] 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).”
If the latter is timely (for the 60s), the former is shockingly prescient, smacking of Edward Snowden’s spot-on worry that the news he risked his life for would largely be shrugged off just as crowds swarm along on their own business, indifferent to the Paul’s death penalty happening right before their eyes.
Pasolini was nothing if not iconoclastic, but his special gift, as demonstrated with Saint Paul and Salò, was the way he used his opponents as puppets, letting them to their own words and actions, but in a world of Pasolini’s choosing, where he allowed context to highlight points of sympathetic truth (Paul’s teaching on brotherly love) and ludicrously anachronistic hoo-ha (Paul’s preaching against women [‘If they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands in the home, since it is improper for a woman to speak in the assembly…’]).
Pasolini was entertaining the possibility of using the same score for Saint Paul as his Gospel of Saint Matthew, and it gives pause to think that had he a.) gotten funding and successfully produced Saint Paul and b.) lived to a riper age, if the powder keg of his creative energy would’ve exploded the Bible and redone the whole thing in whatever twisted manner he deemed appropriate, so we’d have something resembling a 20-season HBO show called The Pervert’s Guide to God.
Or is that just an alternate title for the text in question?