Milo Rau keeps you on your toes. On stage, the Belgium-based director is drawn to true stories often performed by non-actors playing themselves. In productions such as La Reprise, about a homophobic murder, and Familie, about a joint suicide, he blurs the line between fact and fiction in a way that unsettles and provokes. He doesn’t let you sit back.
Thrillingly, he does the same thing on film. The New Gospel, available on the NTGent website this Easter weekend, is at once a dramatisation of the crucifixion story, a portrait of exploited migrant workers and a behind-the-scenes documentary. We don’t just get the last supper and the biblical quotes, we also see the auditions, the rehearsals and the material on either side of each take. It’s about what it means to tell the story as much as it is about the story itself.
The scene is Matera in southern Italy, which, as well as being European capital of culture in 2019, served as a film set for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A city that looks like it’s been chiselled out of the rock, it makes a good screen double for ancient Jerusalem.
Rau’s version plays with that idea. The cinematography of Thomas Eirich-Schneider is poised and crisp as it focuses on the cast in their period tunics, looking rugged and authentic. But then it will pull back to show views through train windows, squalid refugee camps and a night-time railway station frequented by sex workers. Settling into the familiar Easter story isn’t an option.
That’s politically important because Matera is home not only to the photogenic Sassi caves but also large numbers of migrant farm workers on poverty wages, living without electricity or water. Rau’s Jesus is Yvan Sagnet, a real-life activist organising a “revolt of dignity” on behalf of the disenfranchised labourers.
As Jesus, he is passive, wise and accepting; as a campaigner, he is the voice of righteous anger. That he is also a rare black Jesus in European film history brings to notice another layer of injustice in a story that, 2,000 years on, has yet to lose its radical edge.