Passio (2007, Paolo Cherchi-Usai)

second viewing screened Friday April 27 2007 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NY IMDb

It was great to be at an event that I had first heard conceptualized over a year ago, when Paolo invited Cindi and I to a private preview screening of his film at the IFC Center.  He admonished us that the film was meant to be seen only on film projection with a live orchestral accompaniment, instead of the DVD with recorded soundtrack we were about to watch.  All the same it left quite an impression - in its passages of black with illegible calligraphic script running infrequently down the darkness, interspersed - or rather, interrupted - by strange archival imagery of worldly torment and scientific inquisition (or both at once), it was like nothing I've ever seen. Both abstruse and explicit, sacred and profane, theoretical and emotional, it's alternately captivating, frustrating and ultimately in a league of its own. Daniel Kasman:

Usai’s strongest inspiration comes from the combination of Pärt’s reverential, nonrepresentational and distinctly beatific music with the heavily repeated theme in Passio of capturing (both literally and by camera), exploring, breaking, hurting, exploiting and understanding the material body. The film immediately calls into being questions regarding the ontology of the image (the realness and existence of the objects being photographed) and the abstraction of the music, and each element’s association with the material and the spiritual world. The film-image’s origins in materiality, requiring a real object to be placed in front of the camera in order to produce that image, is juxtaposed with Pärt’s minimalist choral piece, which distinctly evokes a feeling—abstract and intangible—of reverent spirituality with no grounding in the material world.

Chained to the Cinematheque:

I'm intrigued that Paolo Cherchi Usai has cited among his influences for this work the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff. I'm no expert on Gurdjieff's philosophies of the physical and spiritual worlds, but it seems that he views existence as a problematic distraction from the work of understanding but also the necessary site of that work, calling to mind the incarnation and corporeal suffering of Jesus. Gurdjieff is also impenetrably sloppy and confused as a writer, possibly on purpose. The purpose? Confusion can obscure the illusion of knowledge, leading us toward our own reflections and a deeper understanding. Whether this strategy has the desired effect is up for debate.

I also think a connection to the films of Straub and Huillet could me made here, in the film's privileging of source material from other mediums (literature, music) and the film as a commentary on cinema as an instrument of interpretation of those other mediums.  While I was mostly disoriented last time I had seen it, what helped me a little (though not completely) this time was watching it with a chronological idea of the Passion narrative in mind, so that the sequence of images can be construed as a rough retelling of the stations of the cross.  I don't know how much a narrative awareness is necessary to appreciate the film, but I think it's there if you need it (at the preview screening Mark McElhatten noted how literally the film's image sequence follows the Passion narrative). It's interesting to me how much the film also has in common with Mel Gibson's movie, even though they couldn't be more different in terms of their intellectual approach to the material as well as their intended audiences. Ultimately both aim to reclaim a sense of primacy to an overfamiliar narrative, and what's more, reclaim the same sense of primacy with our relationship to the cinematic image, to reclaim the power of this medium since its invention: to move us beyond the realms of mundane experience.