A Black Jesus and Muslim migrants feature in ‘The New Gospel’

Milo Rau’s The New Gospel is the first European film starring a Black Jesus, and the first Gospel story featuring refugees and a mixed cast of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Milo Rau has retold the Passion of Christ through the story of migrant workers in Italy fighting for rights and citizenship.

Rau has managed to push aside the religious, traditional, and mystical elements of the story of the Passion of Christ, and expose its essence, its radical social message.

Rau’s film is not only highly political, it is radically human, critics say. 

The New Gospel is part activist documentary, part fictional reimagining of the Passion of Christ, part meditation on filmmaking, and stars Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian immigrant in Italy 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.

Matera’s shantytowns

At the end of 2017, Rau, who is the artistic director of the NTGent theater in Belgium, said he had been looking 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 both shot.

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 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.”

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.

German producer Arne Birkenstock supported Rau’s project.

“With the story of the Passion of Christ, Milo takes one of the fundamental Western myths and at the same time tells the story of the West’s current moral failure — for instance in the refugee crisis and in the fact that the West at least tolerates the conditions on the plantations.”

“When you work with Milo, you never just make a film,” Birkenstock added.

Utopian documentary

“We call it an utopian documentary,” says Rau.

“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.”

So, he adds, “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.

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Inspired by reality

When Rau visited Matera for the first time in 2017, he saw the legendary locations as well as the field workers’ camps, saying he was shocked by what he saw.

“After two days, I was completely devastated, and I was like, ‘How can you survive and keep up your energy even for a week? “It’s really cold there in the winter, there’s incredible violence and you’re starving.”

The director said the conditions in the camps near the 2019 European Culture Capital reminded him of the situation described in the New Testament: “Roman occupation, the exploitation of people without rights.”

Rau says it was precisely in this place that he came up with the concept for The New Gospel.

When asked what impact he hoped the film would have, Rau said: “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.”

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