Lent and Pasolini


If I may rehash a film cliche: what can a gay Marxist atheist anticlerical football fan teach us about Lent? Well, quite a lot actually.

I have to admire Pier Paolo Pasolini whose range of subjects is pretty remarkable. His so called ‘Trilogy of Life’ is near the knuckle but amazingly evocative of those ages and places that it wishes to depict: medieval England and Italy and the timeless exoticism of Arabia. His gross and grotesque Salo is in its deeply unpleasant way a serious film. Given its inspiration and setting, if it was remade today it would be called Raqqa.

The man had a distinctive cinematic style, and like his fellow Italian Sergio Leone, he was an absolute master of the human face. The most ordinary of people become gripping subjects instantly. Emotion is routinely underplayed, and is the more powerful because of it.

When it comes to Lent, the key is his remarkably pure and beautiful Gospel According to St Matthew (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). At a stroke Pasolini went from being in trouble with the Church and others for Accatone and Ro.Go.Pa.G to being justifiably feted by the Vatican for this movie, described in 2014 by L’Osservatore Romano as “…the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema”, although when it came out 50 years earlier, some of the church old guard had struggled with the idea that Pasolini could do this in all sincerity. But he did.

Why specifically Lent, given that the movie tells the story of the whole of St Matthew’s Gospel? The answer lies in Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, praying and fasting, which is the most recent and most striking of the various allusions in scripture to Lent as we know it today. There he is tempted by Satan, and dismisses him with pointed references to the Old Testament.

In this film Pasolini typically used a lot of locals with no acting pedigree. He scattered in various acquaintances from his intellectual salon, and also his own mother. The locals are from Crotone, Matera, and Massafra, which is that primitive part of Southern Italy that stands in for ancient Palestine – totally convincingly. However, the desert sequence was filmed on Mount Etna, and it works brilliantly. The emptiness interrupted by the distant figure of Satan, walking purposefully towards Jesus, the dust billowing in his wake resembling, possibly intentionally,  sulphurous fumes. Satan himself is startling and charismatic, portrayed in the most understated way yet brimming with both evil and, one senses, confusion. Weirdly, this is the one main actor in the film who goes uncredited, as far as I can ascertain.

Other people find other scenes more compelling, but this desert sequence does it for me. Pasolini moved on to other things, some mentioned at the start, and got himself disapproved of again. However, he never disavowed his fascination with Christ and his teaching, seeing it in terms of its superficial similarities to socialism and more convincingly,  Jesus as a revolutionary, of a unique kind. He often mused on this paradox: “I am anticlerical (I’m not afraid to say it!)… but it would be insane on my part to deny the powerful influence religion has exerted on me”….“I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer—at least not consciously.”

Which is fair enough. But this man of contradictions was also anti-drugs, anti-establishment and remarkably, completely anti-abortion. This is from when he opposed the legalisation of abortion in Italy in 1975: “I am however shocked at the idea of legalizing abortion, because, as many others, I consider it a legalization of homicide. In my dreams and in my everyday behaviour – an attitude common to all human beings – I live my prenatal life, my being happily immersed in the waters: I know that I existed then. I will stop here, because I have more urgent things to say on abortion. That life is sacred is an obvious thing: it is a principle even stronger than any principle of democracy, and it is useless to repeat it.”

He also portrayed the actuality of hell in one scene from The Canterbury Tales, in a mind blowing mix of Hieronymus Bosch, the Carry On movies and Dante’s Inferno. One thing he gets right, based on the popular imagination, is the deafening, screeching noise of hell.

Having said that, the real Satan, who affects us all, is the one in the desert.


Great landscapes: Bruegel


Most landscapes don’t contain around 500 identifiable people, but this landscape is different, on many levels. It has a lot in common with one I blogged about several years ago, the extraordinary and beautiful Magpie on the Gallows. Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary is one of the many Netherlandish masterworks in Vienna’s mind bogglingly good Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is now 452 years since it was painted.

This one exerts a strange effect on people. It is the sole subject of one of the best art monographs you could ever read,  Michael Gibson’s The Mill and the Cross (1, 2) Gibson is an exceptionally clear and unstuffy writer, who is a brilliant analyst of a painting – and the associated history. He had unprecedented access to the painting from the enlightened gallery curators. He has spent literally hours poring over the painting, and his book allows you to do that too.

The painting has numerous subtexts related to Netherlandish folklore, peasant life, and running through it, the hardcore cruelty of the Spanish control of the Netherlands, exerted by the fearsome Duke of Alba on behalf of Philip II. They’re his men riding across the centre of the picture. As so often with Bruegel, the theme is one thing  – Calvary is tiny, in the top right, Jesus is barely noticeable at first, in the dead centre – the overall composition is another. Like Bosch and Patinir, he was a master of the far off blue distances, and the detailed smaller scenes such as the towns and buildings (top left). Gibson makes the point that there are three circles – Calvary, the town (incomplete), and the main central one of the procession and associated hangers on, which seems to revolve around the axis of the upright mill on the extraordinary crag, which may or may not be a visual metaphor for God’s role in all this. Charles Bouleau, who wrote a great book on the topic in 1963, The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art, would have a field day with it all. To give a flavour of that I’ve added Gibson’s three circles, the diagonals at the intersection of which is Christ, the three ‘landscape layers’ of foreground, middle and distance, and the most obvious verticals. There are three very similar irregular shapes – the front left rock, the mill with the rock and trees at its base, and Mary with her companions, front right.  Bouleau would have found more spatial relationships, no doubt. There is nothing accidental in the composition.


Amazingly, the story and composition of the painting became a film in 2011, with Rutger Hauer doing an unsurpassable turn as Bruegel. It is genuinely mesmerising, and got terrific reviews (1,2,3), particularly for an ‘art film’. When Russ Meyer’s buddy Roger Ebert is enthralled then you know you’ve struck a chord. Gibson co-wrote it with the Polish director Majewski, and it effortlessly recreates the Middle Ages like Borowcyk’s Blanche or Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales. Not easy to accomplish, as it’s mostly about mood and authenticity. The whole film is occasionally available on YouTube, here’s the trailer:

Luck, cancer, me, and you

A colleague of mine wanted to implement an idea put to him by one of his friends, when faced with a pile of CV’s  – a hundred or more – belonging to job applicants. He would throw them in the air, and then chuck half of the randomly scattered CV’s in the bin. He knew he didn’t want to employ them, because “they’re the unlucky ones. I don’t want unlucky people”.

A neat circular argument, and actually, when you think about it, a correct one. They are indeed unlucky. In fact, the best argument against the scheme is to say that ‘luck’ as a personal attribute, irrespective of its ubiquity in everyday speech, doesn’t actually exist.

...his luck ran out
…his luck ran out

A tricky one. Napoleon famously said “I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?”, which suggests that he did view it as a personal quality. He muddied the waters a bit by expanding in a subsequent conversation: “All great events hang by a hair, I believe in luck, and the wise man neglects nothing which contributes to his destiny”. Which suggests that the ideal, where someone is so fortunate they can sit around without making any practical efforts, probably didn’t entirely convince Bonaparte either. This chimes with the associated famous quote of Gary Player, which everyone knows, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”.

This is on a day when the papers have latched on to the tantalising concept that most people who get cancer are just…unlucky.  All those bad habits – and a few good ones  – usually aren’t involved.

This unlucky thing makes sense, at first. The scenes out of Breaking Bad, or the British TV ads that show the bad news being delivered – you’ve got a tumour – are pretty close to the mark. Not a moment you forget.  And yet, there is another perspective. Richard Smith was the editor and (former) clinician who transformed the august British Medical Journal into the public health/global warming obsessed lefty house rag that it is today. After accomplishing that he then amusingly skipped off into the enormous international private healthcare business. For all his faults though, he’s not an idiot, and he’s just got himself into some trouble with the counterintuitive (at first sight) observation that getting cancer could actually be a lucky thing. The caveat, perhaps, is it depends how old you are. Here’s the Daily Mail quote:

Death from organ failure – respiratory, cardiac, or kidney – will have you far too much in hospital and in the hands of doctors. ‘So death from cancer is the best… You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.

‘This is, I recognise, a romantic view of dying, but it is achievable with love, morphine, and whisky. But stay away from overambitious oncologists, and let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death.’

As it happens, I blogged on this a bit last May. Smith has a point. The original BMJ blog is beautifully observed, and well worth reading, as is the thoughtful response after he’d endured his 10 minutes of gleefully overhyped public indignation, and a Twitterstorm. As I write, I can report that the acute takes in my hospital are crammed with elderly people with variable degrees of cognition, multiple pathologies and travelling from care home to hospital, then back again. Many are in their nineties. There is such a thing as living too long.

A semi-detached clinician like Smith, then, gives a valuable ‘alternative’ perspective. Two economists of sorts provide more. Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs has a brilliantly acerbic blog which performs the truly valuable function of skewering numerous self regarding ‘public health’ initiatives and propaganda. Here he is musing on the bad luck argument versus the ‘ban everything’ crowd:

This is really just another way of imparting the same information. ‘Large minority of cancers caused by lifestyle factors’ is no different to ‘Most cancers not caused by lifestyle factors’ except in its emphasis…….But the change in emphasis is very significant. The Boxing Day story was inspired on a Cancer Research UK press release whereas today’s report is based on a study published in Science. Moreover, the CR-UK press release gives a much higher estimate of how many cancers are lifestyle related. It attributes more than 40 per cent to lifestyle factors (smoking, diet and drinking, mostly) whereas the new study finds that only a third of cancers are due to lifestyle factors, environmental factors and hereditary factors combined.

None of this is to decry cancer research or cancer medicine, but a more philosophical overview has its place. We’re all going to die eventually, as Richard Smith eloquently notes. Tim Worstall, something of a polymath, offers a counterweight,  in this blog from the invaluable Adam Smith Institute:

But we’re afraid that it’s still an insane thing for anyone to say that we should not try to cure cancer. The mistake is akin to that made by so many of the slower thinkers about market interactions. Sure, if there’s only one single market interaction then as game theory tells us the incentive is to rip off the other party. But most market interactions are not one off transactions, they’re simply a part of a number of iterations of the same transaction. In which case the incentive is to cooperate to mutual advantage.

Looking to cancer the assumption being made is that OK, once suffered from one should simply fold one’s tent and steal away into that long dark night. Which is to entirely ignore the fact that as cancer treatments get better it’s possible to have a series of iterations. That first, that skin cancer, say is treated and two decades later the luck of the draw brings on, say, colon cancer which may or may not be treatable. The whisky and heroin option taken at that first iteration would then have robbed one of that 20 years of life. It’s entirely possible that cancer is that “good death” but surviving one or two brushes with it before succumbing would be even better.

This post began with luck, and ends with it. Worstall again:

It’s necessary not to starve to death, avoid being eaten by sabre toothed tigers, not get smallpox, for long enough for those multiplying cells to go wrong. Something is going to get you and the later, whatever it is, the more luck you’ve had.

...here's one I made earlier. Genuinely.
…here’s one I made earlier. Genuinely.