MATERA, Italy — For his cinematic retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, “The New Gospel,” the Swiss-born, Belgium-based director Milo Rau sought answers to some questions: What would Jesus preach in the 21st century? Who would he stand with? What would he fight for?
Mr. Rau found one answer in contemporary Italy, where his project — part movie, part documentary, part political campaign — unfolded this year. To play Christ, he chose a former migrant seasonal worker, one of the thousands who harvest sundry crops — mostly tomatoes, olives and oranges — in the fields of Southern Italy. They work long, exhausting hours for negligible pay while being forced to live in overcrowded, derelict shantytowns, often with no access to electricity or water.
So one late September afternoon, an offbeat parade of migrants mostly from African nations, young Italians, members of various nongovernmental organizations, journalists, locals with their dogs and even a donkey — snaked along the white-stoned streets of the Southern town of Matera, chanting “work, dignity, rights.” Dressed in a nondescript black T-shirt and jeans, Mr. Rau marched in the crowd, pumping his fist to the chants as cameras rolled.
Jesus and his apostles led the parade, which was actually the movie’s scene of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and they stopped on the steps of Matera’s cathedral under the sweltering afternoon sun to sing “Bella Ciao,” an old Italian song that has been adopted as an anthem against Fascism.
Speeches followed: about the hardships the migrants endure to put food on Italians’ tables; about the difficulties they face as foreigners in Italy; about the hostility, racism and bureaucratic loopholes that prevent many from achieving legal immigration status.
Their monologues were often interrupted by the cries of “dignity, dignity,” and “freedom, freedom.”
“There will be hatred against us; I ask you to resist,” Yvan Sagnet, a Cameroonian, told the crowd members, who cheered. “We have to fight. We have to remain united.”
Mr. Sagnet, who was knighted in 2016 by the president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, for his work with migrants, is Jesus. Other advocates for migrants’ rights — also black Africans living in Italy — were chosen to play the apostles, along with one Italian who is active in a small farmer’s rights group.
Finally, a truck rolled into the piazza and dumped thousands of ripe tomatoes onto the pavement. Jesus and his apostles began stomping on them with gusto, crying, “Let’s destroy what destroys us.”
“The New Gospel” is an original work for Matera 2019, part of a series of events for this city’s turn as European capital of culture, an initiative in which cities host programs highlighting European cultural diversity.
Matera is known for its distinctive “sassi,” a honeycomb of cave dwellings occupied since Paleolithic times that have made it a photogenic stand-in for the Holy Land. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was struck by severe storms this week, which caused a torrent that swept through the ancient city.
The intellectual, poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed his 1964 movie “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” here, and Mel Gibson followed suit with “The Passion of the Christ” 40 years later. (In September, Mr. Rau shared set time with the production of the latest Bond film).
Mr. Rau said his initial idea had been to bring together actors who had worked here with Pasolini and Mr. Gibson and “do a new Jesus film.”
But once he arrived in Matera and came to know of the hardships of the thousands of migrant tomato-pickers who toil in the fields of Basilicata and nearby Puglia, living in dire conditions, the project took a radical turn.
“I found out that this is the political situation there,” and that gave birth to a project that brought together a “mix of real activists, of authentic people and of actors,” he said, including the former Spanish actor (and computer chess expert) Enrique Irazoqui, who played Jesus in the Pasolini film, and the Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern, who played Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Mr. Gibson’s film. Mr. Rau is now editing the movie and he said it would make the rounds of film festivals before its theatrical release a year from now.
The multidisciplinary project “is quite complicated,” said the director, whose taboo-challenging productions have never shied away from polemics.
Mr. Rau and his crew filmed for hours in a shantytown near Matera and others beyond. They shot scripted scenes for the “Jesus film,” and they staged public events as part of an emancipatory political campaign — called The Revolt of Dignity — that was conceived by Mr. Rau to support the rights of migrants exploited by a system that they say treats them as slaves.
Mr. Sagnet said the campaign aimed to create a bottom-up network that would fight for migrants’ rights in Italy and beyond: “The film is the beginning, not the end. It’s the beginning of a process of participation from the ground up, of people in difficulty.”
In Rome’s storied Teatro Argentina, and a month later in an open-air church in downtown Palermo, Sicily, scripted scenes for the film were followed by unscripted public debates. In Rome, the deputy mayor was booed when he said he couldn’t support squatters’ rights, while Palermo’s mayor was cheered for giving residence permits to migrants.
In both cities, Mr. Sagnet put to a vote a campaign manifesto drafted by the apostles, as well as by Mr. Rau and his dramaturge, Eva-Marie Bertschy, calling for rights like freedom of movement, adequate housing and humane working conditions.
In both cities the manifesto was adopted by the audience in a landslide.
Mr. Rau said a black Jesus inevitably brought slavery to mind, as well as racist violence. “It’s a metaphor of racism and the whole story of this kind of violence against black people,” he said.
The great merit of Mr. Rau’s film was that it put “a spotlight on a stain on the consciousness of any Italian, which is the existence of ghettos for migrants who are exploited in the agricultural business in the South of Italy,” said Lorenzo Marsili, the founder of the Transeuropa Festival, which hosted Mr. Rau in Palermo. Empowering the oppressed — “this is what we think good art in a moment of crisis, such as the one that Western democracies are living through, should be doing,” he said.
In Palermo last weekend, a fisherman’s boat carrying Mr. Sagnet and a half-dozen apostles floated toward a sandy beach as dusk began to fall. On shore, the other apostles awaited, along with the mission leader of “Mediterranea Saving Humans,” a humanitarian group whose ships rescue shipwrecked migrants.
They all embraced when they landed.
“Having Jesus welcomed by a rescue worker seemed very powerful to us,” Luca Casarini, the Mediterranea mission leader, said in an interview. For years now, tens of thousands of migrants have crossed the Mediterranean from Africa in search of a better life. Many do not make it; others are fortunate enough to have been saved by rescue ships.
Then the apostles and onlookers walked to a nearby cultural center.
There, one apostle, Papa Latyr Faye, known as Hervé, who runs a housing project for migrants near Foggia, in Puglia, told the gathered audience that the walk from the port had been “very moving.”
“The best thing was not walking alone but together,” he said.