The New Gospel

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The New Gospel
"Documentarian Milo Rau's hybrid feature is part passion play and part call for compassion."

Documentarian Milo Rau's hybrid feature is part passion play and part call for compassion - nestling its biblical re-enactments within a framework of migrant workers campaigning for better living conditions and rights in Italy.

The southern Italian town of Matera has been used as a setting for the story of Jesus before - standing in for Jerusalem in Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According To St Matthew and Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ. Now Rau is on a quest for connection - between the religious story and the realities of the present, between the local population and the passion play he is staging and between those previous productions and his as stars from both those films - Enrique Irazoqui, who was Jesus in the Pasolini and Maia Morgernstern who played Gibson's Mary - both feature in lesser roles here.

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It's a complex undertaking and while some elements of it work more successfully than others, when the connections hit home they pack a punch. The idea of marrying the life of Christ to modern-day struggles may not be original but it is certainly apt enough and as the familiar moments in the story play out they are bolstered by being sandwiched between the workers' "revolt of dignity" campaign that is trying to stop exploitation by unscrupulous tomato farmers, who offer pittance wages at the same time as the police are threatening to evict the labourers from what accommodation they do have.

There's a lot of politics to this, not least because Jesus is played by Yvan Sanget, a Cameroonian activist who organised workers against the almost mafiosi-style caporalato system, which treats its illegal workers as little more than slaves. His very presence, alongside other African migres playing his disciples, adds edge to the role. Politics appear too, in the casting of roles, with the mayor definitely not wanting to be seen as Pontius Pilate. The insertion of casting scenes in a church, in which the locals talk about what role they might have, offer an immediacy, as does a moment when Ivan, still in his Jesus garb, joins one of the workers' protests. Later, a scene in which one man thrashes a chair in lieu of Jesus, spouting racist bile as he does so is, like many of the abuse scenes here, is notable for how easily people slip into the role and asks questions about wider community attitudes.

Not everything slots together neatly - there's such a lot going on that it's hard for Rau and his editors to strike an even balance between the documentary elements and the biblical story in terms of screentime, with the campaigning forced into the background rather too much as the biblical element gathers pace, although those scenes carry their own weight and are well-shot by Thomas Eirich-Schneider. There's also good use of music, with compositions from composers including Mozart and Wagner adding depth to the biblical re-enactment, while songs by Italian artist Vinicio Capossela - who has a distinctly Tom Waits vibe - add poignancy to the documentary element.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2020
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Hybrid documentary about the life of Jesus and the current struggles of migrant workers in Italy.

Director: Milo Rau

Writer: Milo Rau

Starring: Yvan Sagnet, Maia Morgenstern, Enrique Irazoqui, Marcello Fonte, Yvan Sagnet, Maia Morgenstern, Enrique Irazoqui, Marcello Fonte

Year: 2020

Runtime: 147 minutes

Country: Germany, Switzerland, Italy

Festivals:

Venice 2020

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