"Accatone," Bach, "Casino": or, a short history of the St. Matthew Passion in cinema

Because I live with a professional musician I get to listen to a lot of music (as well as a lot of conversations about music).  A couple of weeks ago my boyfriend was talking to me about Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and playing a bit of it on our piano.  Somehow we go to talking about Bach’s music being used in films.  Joe didn’t seem to be aware of many films that had made use of this particular piece.  The only one I could think of was the opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Casino.  So I was particularly surprised when I began watching Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) for the first time this week and heard, over the opening credits, the strains of (what else?) the final movement of the St. Matthew Passion.  (From the other room Joe’s antennae went up, as they do whenever Bach is played within a radius of a mile.)

Pasolini’s use of Bach in Accattone, which underscores scenes in which the film’s central characters—a coterie of pimps, prostitutes, ne’er-do-wells, and ragazzi—deceive, tease, and brawl with one another, is almost as unexpected and idiosyncratic as his use of world music and African-American spirituals in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964)  (which does not make use of the St. Matthew Passion, as I recall).  Accattone exemplifies the unsentimental religiosity of Pasolini’s films, which are nearly always informed by the Christian tradition but espouse an ethics that does not always line up with that tradition (and sometimes runs counter to it).  The tragic beauty of Bach’s music is used as a stylistic counterpoint to the unsparing story of a thief and a pimp whose death, as Peter Bondanella has pointed out, begs to be read as the consummation of an ironic martyrdom.     

Given Martin Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of Italian cinema, I would bet money that Accattone was the inspiration for the opening sequence of his Casino (1995), where the same chorus from the Passion plays underneath titles designed by Saul and Elaine Bass.  As in Accattone, Scorsese’s use of Bach is deeply ironic: this is another story of beggars, thieves and prostitutes set in a fallen world even more sacrilegious than Pasolini’s Rome.  Scorsese takes it even further: the Las Vegas of the opening credits sequence is rendered as a kind of neon inferno.  “We sit down in tears and call to thee in the tomb,” indeed.      

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