Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964
Starring: Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, Susanna Pasolini
“I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” — Pier Paolo Pasolini
Closely following the Gospel of Matthew, Pasolini relates the life of Jesus Christ from his birth, childhood in Israel, and the early years of his teachings. The stern young man relates moral lessons through parables, traveling throughout the countryside. The film is divided into two parts and in the first half he preaches, finds apostles, and performs miracles. In the second half, his controversial teachings eventually reach the local Jewish elders, who plot against him and have him arrested, tried by Pontius Pilate, and crucified, which he had earlier foretold would occur.
This Italian-French coproduction is perhaps a surprising work for Pasolini — an intellectual, Marxist, homosexual, and atheist — but it can be seen as the natural conclusion to his early Catholic themes in films like Accattone, Mamma Roma, and La ricotta. If all three of those early works follow a poor, Christ-like figure who is ultimately destroyed by the bourgeois world, The Gospel According to St. Matthew examines the biblical Christ directly. It tells us perhaps as much about Pasolini as it does about the historical religious figure, who is here depicted with a sense of gravity, presence, and austerity. Christ is is no longer a passive spiritual icon but a fervent, determined revolutionary figure. This is essentially a Marxist parable about a righteously angry poor man who wanders the land preaching against greed, corruption, and wealth.
I have to admit that I came to this film with some doubts and personal resistance — like Pasolini, I’ve spent most of my life as an atheist, though I was raised by a Catholic family. Unlike Pasolini, I have no “nostalgia for belief,” though I do have an appreciation for the sacred, the divine, and the unexplainable. I have to admit that I don’t find the biblical Christ to be an overwhelmingly interesting figure, but Pasolini takes a fascinating approach. Once I was able to get past the religious themes and look at this as a new work, it’s not really that far from the magical realism of someone like Jodorowsky — albeit more restrained. Though Christ performs miracles — he heals a facially disfigured man, walks on water, and transforms loaves into fishes — these events are presented at face value and met with little fanfare. An early scene showing the massacre of the babies is probably the most disturbing and surreal. It was primarily shot from a distance to depict screaming mothers and their dead babies flying through the air.
There is very little dialogue, most of which is lifted from the fairly straightforward Gospel of Matthew. The proceedings have a Brechtian sense of distance and alienation and the film is populated with strangely flat and alien characters that give The Gospel According to St. Matthew an allegorical feeling — though there are some scenes where Christ treats his followers with warmth and affection and Pasolini accomplishes much with dialogue-free close ups of faces. The only really sentimental moments surround Mary, both as a radiant young mother concerned for her child and later as a beatific old woman, played by Pasolini’s own mother, Susanna, with whom he had an incredibly close relationship.
One of his most overtly poetic films, this was inspired more by Renaissance art than any clear sense of religion. The incredibly powerful cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli is among the film’s high points, as is the unusual soundtrack with selections from Bach and Jewish religious chants to soulful popular music, such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The cinema verite elements are enhanced by some very careful editing. For example, some of Christ’s preaching has a documentary feel and the facial close ups of his preaching the Sermon on the Mount are incredibly claustrophobic.
As was his custom, Pasolin used non-professional actors from the area where he shot the film — not at all in the Middle East, but in the Mediterranean countryside of Southern Italy — a location he discovered while shooting his previous film, the documentary, Love Meetings. Played by Spanish student Enrique Irazoqui, Jesus is a little Gothic-looking with his black cloak, dark under-eye circles, an abundance of facial hair (though he isn’t quite bearded), and an air of brooding. Other cast members included writers and intellectuals like Enzo Siciliano, Alfonso Gatto, and Natalia Ginzburg.
Allegedly, Pasolini had the idea to make this film thanks to a trip to Assisi in the early ‘60s. He went there at the Pope’s invitation to meet with a panel of non-religious artists and writers that the Pope personally organized. Stuck in a hotel room, Pasolini read all four gospels and decided to make a film — arguably the last project anyone at the time would have expected from him — and he eventually won the support of the Church. Though Pope John XXIII died a year prior to the film's release, Pasolini dedicated it to his memory.
This award-winning film is certainly no walk in the park, but it’s a rewarding, moving experience. There is something non-spiritual and non-sentimental about this rendition that ultimately allowed me to enjoy it far more than I thought possible. It would be an interesting exercise at some point to compare it to other works about leftist revolutionary personalities. The figure of the brave outcast and the defiant outsider is a constant not only throughout Pasolini’s work, but in some of my favorite films and I think if you approach The Gospel According to St. Matthew with that perspective, you’ll get a lot more out of the film. Sadly, there are no great region one releases, and the UK Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is absolutely the finest available so far.