Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Gospel According to St. Matthew. (1964)
Pier Paolo Pasolini

I'll preface my reaction to Pasolini's Gospel rendition by stating that I'm already a huge fan of this story, have been my whole life, which is probably obvious if know me or have read something here before. The Gospel is a story I'm willing to base my life on, but at times I feel it's a cosmic gamble of sorts -- one plus one rather seems to equal two, so in the grand scheme of things the Story makes the most sense. I don't deal well with the collective baggage of contemporary Christianity, but I like the Christ story. I hope that such a beautiful thing can also be the Truth (capital "T"), but I'm willing to follow this narrative understanding of the Universe as opposed to quite a few bullet- and power-point sermons blithely spoken across the land on many Sunday morning gatherings in the US.

I'm not always a fan of the Gospel story when it is portrayed in film. I can't say it's usually done well in this format. I am, however, a huge fan of at least three Jesus films which have really sunk themselves into the core of my understanding of life: The Miracle Maker, which I wrote about Here and is #26 on this year's Top 100, is the first one that comes to mind. Artistically created with stop-motion puppetry animation, it is that rare version of the Gospel that appeals to both young and old, a perfect introduction for children that's also suited to the tastes of appreciative adults.

I also have a tremendous amount of respect for The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's bloody, raw, visceral and some say anti-Semitic rendering of Christ's final few hours (and a film I scooped years ago in putting up the first review on the net), and The Last Temptation of Christ, a fictional psychological retelling of the Gospel which got inside the head of Jesus to figure out how he managed mentally as God lodged in human flesh -- the struggle ingrained in a psyche that is fully man and yet fully God, Jehova wrapped in the skin of original sin.

These are the three that have stuck with me so far. Many more that I can't name come to mind as films that I'd rather not remember -- usually low budget features made by serious minded but artistically defunct evangelicals. My friend Matt, who is an expert in this field, would probably recommend quite a few solid films that I've never even heard of. He specializes in Jesus films and blogs about them Here. It is through his recommendation, and quite a few others at the A&F community that I finally took a chance on The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

This is not the family friendly introduction to Jesus in The Miracle Maker, nor is it the deeply probing psychological profile study of The Last Temptation of Christ. Neither is it anything as violent and visually gripping as The Passion of the Christ -- the grande finale of the crucifixion scene itself is rendered as bloodless in Pasolini's film. It is, however, a version that I think stands out from the rest. Quite a few unforgettable moments bring visuals to scenes that have lived in the heads of Christians for years. But the film has a slow, meditative, challenging nature to it, and it is old, which may present problems to contemporary viewers.

I'm no film scholar, so it would be hard for me to relate what the film meant to anyone who saw it in the mid-sixties, but viewing it now is in some moments like taking in a large scale art school project. Long, static scenes of silence with a roving camera in close-up travels from face to face in large gatherings of people. Shots like this are held for excruciating lengths of time, which can lead one into a sleepy mode of movie watching. I have several friends that love the film, who say they fell asleep the first time they tried to view it.

It's also shot in black and white, captured mostly outdoors, and at times feels like Ingmar Bergman got involved with the project, though this is a larger scale film than you'd find in Bergman's productions. But the Bergman mention is apt -- it gets at what I was trying to describe earlier when I mentioned art school.

None of this is to say it is a bad film. It isn't. It's an epic, sprawling, majestic piece of cinema. But let this serve as a warning for what you're getting into when you sit down with The Gospel According to St. Matthew. There are moments that will surely try any reasonable viewer's patience, combined with moments which shed a unique light on the story of Christ, perhaps not present or told like this in other Gospel films.

There are more than a few haunting moments: the visit from the Magi brings about Herod the Great's Massacre of the Innocents, depicted here as soldiers chasing down scores of women and children to spear and cut the heads off of their newborn or very young sons; Jesus on his knees praying and fasting in the desert and wrestling with the chaos of temptation over control of the world; John the Baptist baptising Jesus before being imprisoned and having his head laid out on a literal chopping block; and of course the Sermon on the Mount, which I believe this film is known for, laid out in a montage which takes place over several days and nights and locations -- suggesting the sermons were steadily repeated over time.

After the calling of his disciples, a grotesque figure approaches them, a leper asking Jesus for healing. Only words are spoken in this amazing, miraculous scene where the healing is shown as instantaneous, and it is perfect. It's stunning to be suddenly presented with a normal looking man after seeing him at first in his ugly deformed state. As would be the usual, Jesus asks him not to tell anyone, but the man, of course, immediately attracts a large, questioning and excited crowd.

Christ's Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on the back of a lowly mule is another moment that absolutely mesmerizes. There must have been hundreds of extras. They're all waving palm branches as they should, and throwing down garments for the path of their approaching King. The expectation and the excitement is that Christ will soon be setting them free from a life under Roman rule. There is joyous fervor here, electricity fills the air. They are intoxicated at the thought of their oppressor finally "getting theirs", though many in the crowd will turn on Jesus in just a few days. The Triumphal Entry in this version leads Christ straight into the temple, where the greatest confrontation yet is going to take place.

This is the scene where Jesus is the liberator of the religiously oppressed, the spiritually abused. His roughback moment of turning over tables in the temple is a pivotal, highly charged moment. He doesn't stop and create a whip first -- rendered here, it is a rash, quick moment of righteous anger. He screams that the temple is made for worship, now being made into a den of thieves, and immediately all of the scribes and Pharisees see what he's done and the commoners rush into the house of worship. The children immediately exalt him, and it is perhaps here where we see his glowing smile in the film, a moment of the sheer satisfaction at what he's just done and the pleasure he gets from the mouths of children. They are waving their palm branches and shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" It is clear in Pasolini's version -- and it seems to make a lot of sense when you think about it -- that this is the final blow in a conspiracy surrounding his approaching imminent death. The scribes and Pharisees can't believe their eyes at what he's just done on their turf. Their plot to have him dead and gone is ratcheted up another notch. Things will not be the same from this point forward.

The Jesus of Pasolini's film is serious, solemn. Aside from the satisfaction with the children in the temple, he really doesn't smile very much. This Jesus isn't the hippie rocker messiah of Jesus Christ, Superstar. He doesn't smile at his own parables or laugh when he teaches, as he did in other filmed versions of the story. He doesn't seem amused with himself or his stories at all. This is a Jesus who clearly understands the solemn nature of his messianic mission. He knows his role in the world, he knows the sacrifice he is here to make. He knows the political forces he is in conflict with and can see to the core of their religious hypocrisy. He calls them out on it in quite a few searing scenes where he preaches outside their walls and windows, blasting them as vipers ensconced in the allure of religious power and wealth. (As an aside, the Jesus of Pasolini's film, actor Enrique Irazoqui, did stop in for a few brief appearances on the A&F forum beginning Here.)

The crucifixion, as I've said, is bloodless, but the power of Christ even from the cross is onscreen. As Jesus screams in agony that God has forsaken him, an earthquake rockets through the city, pummeling several buildings along the way. We don't see the temple vale torn in two, but can surmise that it happened in this moment. And of course, there's a resurrection (and an assumed ascension), unique to a film created by a Marxist-atheist, showing that Pasolini really was interested in the story itself, and the movement that ensued and changed the world.

One of the other things I find interesting is that if Pasolini was an atheist who read the four Canonical gospels and suddenly found himself interested in the Jesus story, why does he include the prophesies that authenticate it as Reality? The wise men from the east telling Herod that the baby will be born in Bethlehem; a narrator that points out the prophesy "Out of Egypt I have called my Son"; Jesus in many moments showing the parallels between the words of Old Testament prophets and the actions surrounding his life. Prophesy and its fulfilment is loaded into the film, illustrating the director's poetic sensibilities in front of his Marxist-atheist worldview. I wonder if the Story had any greater impact on him, or any of the other actors or workers involved, than simply the making of a great Italian art epic.

Overall, the film is solid, perhaps a masterpiece in its day, but too artsy and neo-realist for today's average movie goer. The kid that loves Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (these poor gamer teens just don't know any better) will find the film dry, tedious, old and "boring." I can't say the same. The further I got into it, the deeper and richer the film became for me, to where at the end I could only admit that it is a "classic." But as far as the Jesus story goes for contemporary audiences, I'd still list the other films I mentioned before this.


  1. Thanks for that Stef. I'd forgotten about the time Jesus walked amongst us at A&F. Wow.


  2. You're welcome, Matt! I often visit the Bible Films Blog but I'm chicken to leave a comment. I love the site though. I also saw that the Pasolini film was, if I remember right, number three on your all time Top Ten Jesus films?! Hope I didn't disappoint you by still preferring a few others, but I hope to see the Pasolini again someday. I think it might take some getting used to.


I like to respond to comments. If you keep it relatively clean and respectful, and use your name or any name outside of "Anonymous," I will be much more apt to respond. Spam or stupidity is mine to delete at will. Thanks.