The Gospel According to Saint Matthew
Il Vangelo secondo Matteo
1964 — 142 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.85:1 widescreen — Drama
Essential Pasolini. The life of Jesus Christ told with beauty, complexity, and power — performed by a non-professional cast, and using only the words of the Bible.
Can you imagine a less likely candidate to make what many people still consider, after more than forty years, the greatest and most moving film about Jesus Christ? Pasolini was not only gay, a Marxist and a devout atheist, but his previous novels and films had been about the squalor and brutality of modern Roman slum life. Even worse, he had just been arrested on charges of blasphemy for his depiction of a most un-Christ-like Jesus in the short satirical film, "La Ricotta;" happily, the sentence was suspended. Following a summary of the film, I will look at its unique beauty and power, and explore how Pasolini's vision of Jesus connects with the vision of Saint Matthew's Gospel.
The film, divided into two parts, follows the Gospel closely. It begins with a wordless scene (dialogue or narration is used only when it is found in the Bible) between the pregnant Mary (Margherita Caruso) standing before her puzzled husband Joseph (Marcello Morante), who has not yet slept with her. Joseph leaves his home until an angel (Rossana Di Rocco) convinces him otherwise, saying that Mary is still a virgin and that she will give birth to a man, to be named Jesus, who will save the world. We next see the birth of Jesus; the three wise men bringing him gifts; Joseph, Mary and their baby fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod the Great's slaughter of all male infants in an attempt to stave off a prophecy. Several years later, we see John the Baptist (Mario Socrate) announce the messiah's coming to a crowd of followers; when Jesus asks to be baptized, John kneels at his feet. Next the film shows Jesus in the wilderness where the devil, in human form, tempts him in vain for forty days. Jesus then chooses the apostles and travels with them, preaching, healing the sick, and performing such miracles as walking on water. Pasolini includes only one major sequence not directly involving Jesus, although it is in the Gospel: the death of John the Baptist.
The second part of the uncut film (the version on the DVD) begins with Jesus telling Peter (Settimio Di Porto) that he is the rock upon which the church will be built. The Pharisees, realizing that Jesus's rapidly growing popularity threatens their authority, plot against him and, with the aid of the traitorous apostle Judas (Otello Sestili), have him arrested. Jesus is tried before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and condemned to death. As the apostles scatter to avoid arrest, Peter lies three times about his connection with Jesus, as foretold. Jesus is crucified, and at the moment of his death the skies turn black, an earthquake erupts, and buildings collapse. The film ends, like the Gospel, with the resurrected Jesus telling his followers to spread his teachings throughout the world.
Some people believe that what drew Pasolini to the life of Jesus was the simple, devout faith of his mother, Susanna (whom he cast as Mary, mother of Jesus, in the later scenes). He also had many close friends who were Catholic. And he was impressed with how Pope John XXIII had "brought the Church into the twentieth century;" in fact, Pasolini dedicated the film "to the beloved, joyous, familiar memory of John XXIII." Although I do not want to get bogged down with the history of the film or Christianity it should be noted that the American distributor blotted out the word "joyous" from Pasolini's dedication, while the word "Saint" - against Pasolini's strong objections. They also removed the investiture of Peter scene (now restored in most prints and the DVD), in which Jesus says that he gives him "the keys of the kingdom." That verse arguably laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation, i.e., was Jesus declaring the then-future Roman Catholic Church, through Peter, as the sole keeper of the faith or could his words be interpreted more generally, and hence allow various denominations. The film went on to win a special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and several other awards; it even earned three Oscar nominations: Luis Enriquez Bacalov for his score (arrangements of Johann Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Webern, Prokofiev, Missa Luba: An African Mass, and the African-American spiritual, "Motherless Child") and, in the "films in black-and-white" categories (which ended two years later), Danilo Donati for costume design, and Luigi Scaccianoce for art direction.
I suspect that Pasolini's fascination with Jesus went even deeper, and connected with many of his own most personal themes. The central character in almost all of Pasolini's works is an outsider; of course, with his artistic, political and sexual nature, the artist always saw himself as the consummate outsider. And although Pasolini was one of the leading intellectuals in postwar Italy, as even his detractors admitted, he also spent a lot of time among the poor, including the laborers, indigents, and hustlers (some of whom were his lovers), whose ancestors two thousand years earlier had walked with Jesus.
The story of Jesus also allowed Pasolini the freedom to explore the complexities of real-world politics even while recreating an ancient culture with astonishing immediacy. Some might be tempted to say 'authenticity,' but another aspect of the project which struck Pasolini deeply was the opportunity to play with the vast artistic tradition inspired by Christianity. Notice how the uniforms worn by the Roman soldiers are not of Jesus's time but rather reflections of Renaissance painting's anachronistic interpretations of the era. Pasolini, always a shrewd and articulate interpreter of his own (and everyone else's) work, had this to say, in a 1968 interview, about his eclectic approach: "[T]he style in The Gospel is very varied: it combines the reverential with almost documentary moments, an almost classic severity with moments that are almost Godardian e.g., the two trials of Christ shot like cinéma vérité.... [I]n the references to painting... there are numerous different sources Piero della Francesca (in the Pharisees' clothes), Byzantine painting (Christ's face like a Rouault), etc... And that goes for the music as well... [which] is a mixture of different styles and techniques."
There is also more than a trace of El Greco not only in the intriguing casting of Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus, but in some of the compositions. Irazoqui, a Catalan student of economics, had approached Pasolini to congratulate him on Accattone, and soon found himself starring in The Gospel; Pasolini had also considered having Jesus played by such young, and subversive, literary lions as On the Road's Jack Kerouac and post-Stalinist poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. With Pasolini's encyclopedic knowledge of the visual arts (as well as cinema, music, literature, philosophy, history and a lot more), you could go on indefinitely trying to unravel all of the cultural allusions which make up one, albeit subtle, part of the film's texture so clear and simple on the surface, yet with enormous resonance on so many levels.
In fact, Pasolini began shooting in a very different style, modeled on the one in Accattone. But after a few days, he felt that adopting what he called a "religious style" which in his earlier filmed functioned in brilliant counterpoint to its depiction of a beguiling down-on-his luck pimp was, as he put it, "gilding the lily." While shooting the scene with John the Baptist in Viterbo, he suddenly became inspired to try an entirely new approach: "I threw over all my technical preconceptions. I started using the zoom, I used new camera movements, new frames which were not reverential, but almost documentary."
The result, as they say, is history. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew was like no biblical film seen before. It was a quantum leap beyond the artificiality of, say, King of Kings, both De Milles's silent 1927 version and Nicholas Ray's 1961 remake, and later pictures like Zeffirelli's television mini-series Jesus of Nazareth and Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ are inconceivable without Pasolini's model. Perhaps the most fascinating work inspired by Pasolini's tradition is Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976), about the martyred Roman saint. Pasolini continued exploring this unique, and mesmerizing, vision of the ancient world in such subsequent works as Oedipus Rex, Medea, and Arabian Nights.
Pasolini had the uncanny gift for using the simplest, most economical means to bring his vision to life. Considering his controversial reputation, it is no wonder that it was extremely difficult for him to finance an epic film on the life of Jesus. Shrewdly, Pasolini look every opportunity, throughout the early '60s, to prepare the way for this film. For instance, while shooting scenes in southern Italy for his documentary Love Meetings, he was unofficially scouting locations, not to mention pre-casting some of the minor roles, for The Gospel (although it was released before the documentary). Some of the locations are breathtaking, from an enormous city which seems to grow out of a mountainside to the surreal wasteland where Jesus is tempted by the devil (which was filmed on Mount Etna; and which looks ahead to Porcile). By imaginatively selecting locations and hence by not having to build costly sets Pasolini powerfully recreated the look and feel of the ancient Middle East at a tiny fraction of the cost of a typical Hollywood production. Such scenes as the slaughter of the innocents, John the Baptist meeting Jesus, and Jesus preaching to hundreds of his followers have not only a genuine epic sweep, but a profound feeling of immediacy.
As much as with the landscapes, Pasolini took enormous pains to cast exactly the right faces. He chose real farmers and workers to play their historical counterparts (instead of casting, say, John Wayne as a Roman centurion, as in The Greatest Story Ever Told). Sometimes using real people, who look like themselves and not underemployed actors, can seem nothing less than radical, as here. It also allows for some sly humor: The paunchy, yet genuinely unnerving, Satan who tempts Jesus bears an uncanny resemblance to an assistant manager at my local supermarket.
Perhaps the film's most intriguing aspect is that all of the characters seem peculiarly drained of an inner life, of emotional subtext (which Pasolini explores rigorously in his other films, including those set centuries ago). The film is enormously evocative, but that comes from the purity of the narrative, not from any perceivable psychological depth in these people. This is sacred material presented in the style of legend. On the one hand, that could be explained because of Pasolini's relentless focus on a faithful interpretation of the Gospel. His visual, and performance, style matches Matthew's prose to perfection. But there could also be more complex, and provocative, reasons for his approach.
Take the Sermon on the Mount montage, which consists entirely of close-ups of Jesus preaching with immense force the background reflecting each changing verse, once even with lightning flashing. (The footage came from the early, and abandoned, sacred-style approach; but Pasolini ingeniously, and cost-effectively, was able to integrate it into his final conception by using sharp editorial rhythms.) As we see here, and throughout the film, Pasolini's Jesus is both earthly and otherwordly, harsh and tender. And although his inner life remains completely opaque, he emerges perhaps in part because he has been 'de-psychologized' as a figure of power but also of complexity, and more than a little ambiguity.
Perhaps what most drew Pasolini to the Jesus of Saint Matthew was the rich range of contradictions which his Gospel relates, and which Pasolini visualizes so brilliantly. He was forever picking apart the discrepancies not only in society including religion and politics (as we see in such films as Accattone and The Hawks and the Sparrows) but in himself.
Here, there seems to be an almost palpable connection between Pasolini and his subject, and not in some cheap egotistical way. We see the "tough" Jesus, who "comes not to bring peace," smites a fig tree, violently hurls moneychangers out of the Temple, warns people that they are either "with me or against me," and who asks, "Who is my mother?" to Mary (onscreen now played by Susanna Pasolini). On the other hand, we see the Jesus of utter love and compassion, who heals the sick, treats children with affection, and performs miracles (most are breathtaking, reproduced with the simplest means, as when he walks on water this scene literally sends a chill up my spine; only the miracle of the loaves and fishes Jesus looks down and poof! there's a feast falls flat).
Of course, Pasolini has provocative comments on Jesus's nature, and how it impacts some viewers: "The jump from [the] holy picture scenes to the passionate violence of his politics and preaching is bound to produce a strong sense of unease in the audience.... I have reconstructed, by analogy, in a modern figure the teleological contradictions there are in the Gospel. The Gospel is full of contradictions. They are essential; they are what make it great and rich. But while the contradictions in the text are contradictions of content, of meaning, passion, faith, religion, the contradictions in my film are more existential and therefore more disquieting."
If you want single out one scene, to see Pasolini's genius at work, look at Jesus calling the apostles by the sea. He brings it to life by using utterly real men (the one playing Simon is, in fact, Enzo Siciliano, who years later became Pasolini's first biographer), as well as the gorgeous and natural play of sunlight and shadow. As simple but striking as his compositions are, later in the scene he employs a rapidly panning camera to follow the joyous movement of two more apostles (John and James) joining the group. This is in contrast to Jesus's face, which is rigid, almost stone-like or, from a different perspective, divine. It is a simple scene but one of enormous beauty, strangeness, and emotional impact.
The only aspect of this magnificent film which does not work, at least for me, is the self-consciously eclectic use of music, which extends from Bach to Prokofiev to folk music. He wants this polyglot score in an attempt to create subtle, and shifting, tensions between the world of ancient Judea and our own. Sometimes it enhances the drama; other times its repetition or incongruity are distracting. For instance, the excerpts from the striking Missa Luba: An African Mass lose their impact with each subsequent repetition (there are many); and although the mood of the haunting spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," sung by Odetta, matches the nativity scene beautifully, the lyric clashes with the action and ultimately proves distancing. (It's worth noting that Pasolini had once considered filming The Gospel in Africa with an all-African cast, to recreate the feeling of an ancient world still present today; a few years later he contemplated a similar juxtaposition regarding Greek myth, as seen in his fascinating documentary, Notes for African Orestes.) In contrast to the music here, Pasolini's use of only J.S. Bach's music on the soundtrack to Accattone, a contemporary tale of Roman slums, works to astonishing effect.
More effective than the music is the at times stunning use of silence. Pasolini communicates so much in the wordless opening scene between the pregnant Mary and her baffled husband; just his face expresses all of his confusion and pain. Some might argue that there is no dialogue because of Pasolini's strict adherence to using only the words of the Gospel, which provides none for this scene. But Pasolini does not need them. He reveals the fullness of these people who without asking for it have been touched by the divine and the tactile reality of their world (you can feel the very stones), even as his simple but striking compositions connect his own vision with that of such Renaissance masters as Giotto and Piero della Francesca. This is filmmaking at its most subtle, resonant, and while acknowledging the long tradition of Christian motifs in art original.
The term 'masterpiece' is not one to use lightly, but that is what I believe Pasolini has created in this film.
In The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, he brings together history, art and, above all, his own probing genius. He has created a work of profound simplicity, grandeur, and breathtaking immediacy which is not afraid to depict Jesus in all of his humanity and divinity.
Although this is one of the greatest films I have ever seen, and it is a privilege to have it available on DVD in its uncut original form, the Region 1 release has severe image and sound problems. This is not the fault of Water Bearer Films (I wrote them about their Pasolini DVDs); they simply do the best they can with the prints sent by the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation in Rome which also does not allow any chapter stops on the discs, to encourage people to watch the films only in their entirety. The Foundation has total control over the rights to certain of Pasolini's films, at least for Region 1, including all of the Water Bearer releases. (Some people have noted the striking superiority of image and sound in The Decameron; but that title is controlled by MGM/UA and not the Foundation.) I want to be clear that I completely share the Foundation's goals of disseminating the rich and vital legacy of the artist's film works (which of course is why I created this Pasolini Web site). But with full respect, I hope that they will soon return to the original film and sound elements, and restore these astonishing, and essential, films to the standards which we now expect. Let me also note that on November 9, 2003 I received an informative message from Michael C., concerning selected Pasolini releases in Region 2: "Tartan video in the UK issued THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW on DVD and it is stupendous. They will also be issuing OEDIPUS REX.... Also, the Vanguard DVD of MEDEA will be surpassed by a European release which is imminent. It will be fully restored and cleaned up. Also,... the British Film Institute has issued SALO and the Trilogy of Life on DVD in the UK, but MGM will release those in the States eventually. Also, there is a DVD of SALO which was released in France and it is wonderful." Thank you, Michael, for sharing this information! New Region 1 DVD Release in 2007 of this film, from Genius Products, but I have not yet seen it.
Tip for Watching the Water Bearer Films DVD: The edge enhancement is so severe with white nimbuses surrounding everything (divine haloes they are not) that I took a friend's advice and set the "sharpness" control on my television to its 'blurriest' possible setting. The result is far from optimal, but it did make viewing the film less of a strain. Let me also note that the one time I saw this film in 35mm, at a revival house (of the cinematic kind) in Los Angeles several years ago, the print was, in its own way, as ghastly as the one here (could it have been the same one sent by the Foundation for the DVD?). Having said all of that, I hope that you will not miss the opportunity to see this cinematic masterpiece.
- Presented in the original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.85:1
- Original mono soundtrack
- 30-minute documentary on the filmmaker's life and works: "Pier Paolo Pasolini: A Film Maker's Life" directed by Carlo Hayman-Chaffey
- $29.95 suggested retail
Reviewed November 10, 2003
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