VENICE — In his celebrated 2018 manifesto on how theaters should be run, the Swiss theater director Milo Rau wrote that a stage work isn’t about the final product: What counts is the “production process.”
Rau’s latest film, “The New Gospel,” carries this idea onto the screen. The project — part activist documentary, part fictional reimagining of the Passion of Christ, part meditation on filmmaking — stars Yvan Sagnet, an immigrant to Italy from Cameroon who campaigns for farm workers’ rights, casting him as a contemporary Jesus. Sagnet’s disciples are other migrant workers, and the Italy of today stands in for the Roman Empire.
At the end of 2017, Rau, who is the artistic director of the NTGent theater in Belgium, said he had been expecting to make a more conventional movie about the end of Jesus’ life, shot in Matera, a picturesque town in the south of Italy where Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” were also made. But when he discovered shantytowns near Matera where immigrants from Africa live without running water or electricity while they work on farms for as little as 3.50 euros, or about $4.10, an hour, the project’s focus shifted.
“I decided to not only make a Jesus film, but also to include the reality of their fight for dignity, which is also what Jesus stands for,” Rau said in an interview at the Venice Film Festival, where the film premiered on Sunday.
In “The New Gospel,” immigrant workers describe their experiences, before dressing as Jesus’ disciples and re-enacting Bible scenes. Rau held open castings for roles in the film, and involved activist groups to create a real-life campaign that plays out alongside the fictional scenes.
These are edited excerpts from the interview.
Can you tell me how you landed on the blended documentary and feature film elements we see in “The New Gospel?”
We call it utopian documentary: It’s a documentary about something that is created through the project, and then documented by ourselves. So we create a campaign, then document the campaign. We could have cut a classical Jesus film, but then you would miss all the political layers.
I did this merging in many of my plays, bringing nonprofessional actors or activists together with trained actors, and we started slowly to build up the campaign that you see in the film; in parallel, we reflect what happens in the campaign. So the invading of Jerusalem becomes a protest walking into Matera, or the destruction of the temple becomes the destruction of the supermarket.
So we tried to include the political meaning of the Bible, and the world cinema meaning of it, because every scene you do in a Jesus film, you have 10, 20, 100 directors who’ve done it before you.
In the film, Yvan Sagnet says that even though he is Catholic, he is not interested in making a film about Jesus as a religious figure. What importance does the figure of Jesus have for you, personally?
I’m from a family that is half Italian and half German and I was raised with Catholicism, but then also in a Marxist way. I was always interested in the Bible, but then when I decided to do a Jesus film, out of love for Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” I started wondering who Jesus would be today.
In every scene, we really thought about how to merge art and activism in a way that becomes a statement about Europe today. Because when you start to read the New Testament, you have a guy who’s an activist for the landless people and the periphery of the Roman Empire: that is exactly the situation that we have in Italy now. In the New Testament, the apostles are all migrants who have lost their homes because of the invasion of the Romans, which is exactly the situation in Italy now.
How did you use the Bible as a source for the film?
I really started to read the Bible again while I was doing the film, and I was impressed by the contradictions in the Bible, and I thought, I can’t believe it, this is the holy book? Psychologically it’s so interesting.
Pasolini limited himself to the Gospel of Matthew, but we mixed the gospels. The different gospels are completely contradictory: It’s a crazy script.
For me one sentence from the Bible became the leading sentence of our film, when Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Everything we want for the dignity of these people is in European and Italian law. This situation is illegal. I’m not saying this because I’m a Marxist and I don’t like capitalism, it’s just illegal.
What impact would you like the film to have?
I believe in overcoming a lot of things by art and solidarity. By making the film, we brought together 50 different activist groups and NGOs, and by uniting all these forces, a lot of little relationships happen. These people start and continue to work together, and there’s a lot of little resurrections. We don’t have the scene of Christ’s resurrection; I thought it was too trashy. For me, the resurrection is that the engagements continue and that they continue to stand together.
There is a moment in the film when a Matera local is auditioning for the role of a Roman soldier, and he mimes a racist attack, as if he were beating up Jesus. It was very disturbing to watch, how easily this initially mild-mannered white man embodied racist violence.
In that moment, all the neoliberal racism comes out of him, but it isn’t his racism, he’s just the lens through which you see society. It’s scary. It’s a beautiful moment.
It was important that immediately afterward you see him being very soft with Jesus, hugging him, and taking him down from the cross, and you completely can see that racism is in you, is in me, is in everybody. Because that’s how we are raised. But it’s not in him individually.
Directly after that scene, you see the staging of the torture of Jesus.
That scene shows the whipping of a Black man by white guards, and the movie is premiering at the end of a summer in which Black Lives Matter protests called for an end to state violence against Black people. How does the film connect with that current moment?
The whole film, if you take it as a comment on Black Lives Matter, is about living in the violent structure of so-called globalized capitalism, and at the heart of that is racism, especially in Europe.
So, to make a very simple, moral statement, the film is saying: There is evil in humans, but it comes from somewhere. We are always talking about racism, but we’re not connecting it with where this violence comes from.