Milo Rau is, of course, not the first director to turn the Passion Play into a film. Nor is he the first to do it in the southern Italian city of Matera. Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson both made their films about the trial and crucifixion of Jesus there, and it’s a legacy the Swiss theater director, known for provocative political action, wishes to transform into more meaningful community engagement and impact. The New Gospel is both a recording of the Play, and its costumed pageant procession, and a look behind the scenes of its preparation, in which migrant labour activism struggles to inform its ever-evolving real-world implications.
Rau is the artistic director of Belgium’s NTGent theater, where he adheres to a manifesto of social change and empowerment beyond mere representation. He was invited to do a project in Matera as part of its 2019’ European Capital of Culture selection. Upon his initial visit, he soon became aware of the inhumane conditions in refugee camps located in the city’s surroundings, and the exploitation of labourers linked to mafia corruption. How could one today invite local non-professionals into the cast, as Pasolini had done in the ‘60s, and leave invisible the most destitute and oppressed — the refugees? It was obvious to Rau that they must be central, that the project must bring them material benefits, and that were Christ to preach in the twentieth century, he would not turn a blind eye to their plight.
The twelve apostles
To embody Jesus, and the social revolution he continues to stand for in all of its shifting manifestations, Rau enlisted Cameroonian political activist Yvan Sagnet, who fights for the rights and dignity of undocumented workers in Matera and organised southern Italy’s first agribusiness strikes. To do this, Sagnet brought migrants together by appointing twelve sub-leaders representing twelve communities, like the twelve apostles of Jesus, in a solidarity movement of the poor. Refugees in Matera are earning five euros or less per hour on orange and tomato farms, and are frequently left homeless, denied access to available resources for housing. Some, desperate, are driven to prostitution on the city’s streets. The struggle of contemporary apostles is really one against capitalist exploitation and a racism that views basic rights not as inalienable, but as the dominion of a certain sector of society alone, the documentary suggests.
were Christ to preach in the twentieth century, he would not turn a blind eye to their plight.
In his so-called «Revolt of Dignity», Sagnet fights for better housing, access to medical treatment and employment contracts for migrant labourers, as well as the respect that should make such things a given. Despite a lack of official recognition of their right to reside and support themselves in Italy, these refugees are not criminals, he emphasises. Every one of them has crossed desert or sea to arrive in Italy — a great ordeal that cannot be abstracted. He’s very effective as a mobiliser, imploring workers that if they stay inside alone rather than joining to have their voices heard their conditions will never change. And he draws the convincing connection that rejecting an affinity with these marginalised would mean denying Jesus — though one wouldn’t know it by the inaction of the Church, which has chosen to remain silent on the government’s plans to evict a refugee ghetto while offering no valid alternative.
Casting among locals to fill other roles occasions what is perhaps the most viscerally alarming scene in the film, as one hopeful whips a chair and utters racist abuse in enactment of soldier cruelty that seems to tap a prejudice seated far deeper than mere performance. The mayor has a role in the Passion Play as Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled by the Romans to carry the cross of Jesus, taking on that part as he did «not want to be Pontius Pilate,» he says. His desire to avoid a villain role adds to doubts over his sincerity in supporting the project, being that it is a public relations opportunity for him in the European Capital of Culture spotlight. An Instagram star also tries out, reinforcing the sense that agendas of self-aggrandisement over humanitarian motivations are at the heart of some citizens’ desire to be involved. But other guiding lights are envisaged, albeit from afar. A mural on a public wall depicts the charismatic, pan-Africanist social revolutionary Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated fighting for his people’s dignity against a legacy of colonial exploitation — a figure of sacrifice who has inspired Sagnet and shows that prophets in the form of radical spearheads for change are global and manifold. As we hear ring out at a demonstration: «Those who fight for dignity and welfare fight for it for the entire humankind.»
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