The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Screenplay : Pier Paolo Pasolini (based on The Gospel of St. Matthew)
MPAA Rating : Not Rated
Year of Release : 1964
Stars : Enrique Irazoqui (Jesus Christ), Margherita Caruso (Mary, as a Girl), Susanna Pasolini (Mary, as a Woman), Marcello Morante (Joseph), Mario Socrate (John the Baptist), Settimo Di Porto (Peter), Otello Sestili (Judas), Ferruccio Nuzzo (Matthew)
Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," certainly ranks as one of the most unexpected films of all time, considering that the film's writer/director was a marxist who rejected all forms of organized religion, especially Christianity.
So why did Pasolini make such a film? There are a number of reasons, including his love and respect for his mother, who was a devoted Catholic, and his affinity for the socially aware Pope John Paul XXIII (to whom the movie is dedicated). As Pasolini himself put it, he made the film in a "furious wave of irrationalism," much of which was brought on by his growing unease with the ideology of traditional Marxism and its antagonistic relationship with Christianity.
Because Pasolini was such an unlikely candidate to make this film, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that his disarmingly simplistic style ran counterpoint to other Christ films. "Gospel" arrived right between two grand, Technicolor Jesus epics: Nicholas Ray's "King of Kings" (1961) and George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). This is not to mention the onslaught of Hollywood's other Biblically-themed movies around that time, including Cecil B. De Mille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956) and John Huston's "The Bible" (1966). What all those movies had in common was their movieness -- they were large, boldly conceived spectacles with enormous special effects budgets and casts of thousands (Stevens even went so far as to cast John Wayne as a Roman guard!).
When Pasolini's version was unveiled, it was something of a shock. Filmed entirely in the rocky, southern portions of Italy, and featuring a cast of non-professional actors including the director's own mother as Mary and a truck driver as Judas, "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" was quite a revolutionary film. There was no grandiose color -- it was all shot in dusty black and white, and the camerawork varied from neorealism to shaky cinema verite. Although the script adhered to the text of the Matthew's Gospel in exacting fashion, "Gospel" was almost the antithesis of all Christian epics before it. It was small, spare, and deliberately plodding.
Unfortunately, what Pasolini's simple, bleak vision proves is that small and spare is really no more effective than glorious and overblown when trying to adapt the Gospels to the screen. Pasolini takes his film so far in the opposite direction from those who had preceded him, that he loses any sense of vitality and affection in the story. The combination of his essential disbelief in his subject matter and the Marxist imperative to make a film with a national-popular dimension renders the resulting film impotent on either side.
While fundamentalist Christians were generally accepting of the film, Pasolini was berated by Marxists for having deserted them. Pasolini defended himself by complaining about the stagnation of traditional Marxism at that time, and that he was trying to revive the ideology through a rather unconventional "dialogue" with Christianity. Because of this, many critics have tried to shoehorn "Gospel" into a Marxist interpretation, but it rarely works. Granted, Jesus can be seen as a social outcast working on behalf of the struggling proletariat, but it stretches credulity to see "Gospel" as a truly Marxist work of art.
Pasolini always defined himself first and foremost as a poet, which is revealing in "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," especially in his choice to base the entire film on a single Gospel. Pasolini made the decision early on to remain almost completely faithful to the exact text of the Book of Matthew, with no bridges between scenes or added explanation about characters or situations. His claim was that "inserted words or images could never reach the poetic heights of the text."
However, this ultimately turns out to be a weakness in the film, because it ends up being choppy and incomplete. The Book of Matthew does not make for a good screenplay -- it's organized topically rather than chronologically, and anyone not familiar with the characters and situations in advance might be somewhat confused at how the story unfolds. The Gospels were written in almost fragmented form, and each paints a slightly different portrait of Jesus. The truest account comes from the four Gospels being taken together as a whole. By using only Matthew's account, Pasolini made the project a little more manageable, but only at the sacrifice of clarity.
One of the film's strengths is its use of actual Italian peasants and beautiful location work. Although it is historically inaccurate (aren't all Biblical movies?), it's the spirit that matters, and this is one of the points that Pasolini nails down. The Book of Matthew was specific in its portrayal of Jesus as a man who disdained a typical leader role, and cared for the people no one else cared about. Pasolini's Marxist sensibilities are at their strongest when his documentary-style camera is recording the wrinkled and dusty faces of the poor people Christ spoke to.
However, this same strength also works against the film in certain portions. Pasolini often becomes too fond of the masses, and the film moves back and forth between identifying with them and identifying with Christ. For instance, during the Sermon on the Mount, the camera remains tightly framed on Jesus' face for an extended period of time, never once showing the reactions of the crowd he's addressing. However, during Jesus' two trials, Pasolini switches to a hand-held camera and films the proceedings from the vantage point of the crowed, complete with distant sound and the backs of other people's heads obscuring the foreground.
Much ado has been made about the naturalism of the film, and how Pasolini captured the true essence of the people; and while this is true, it overlooks the fact that this is primarily the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and if he doesn't work as a character, the film doesn't work. In fact, Pasolini's greatest failing is the casting and portrayal of Jesus himself, and his relationship with his disciples and the crowds.
Although Pasolini sought to reject all the traditional iconography associated with the Gospels (his Pharisees and Roman soldiers, however, are modeled directly from paintings by Piero della Francesca), he fell directly into the aggravating myth that Jesus was gaunt, sallow, and effectively feminine. When are filmmakers going to realize that the man spent almost thirty years working as a carpenter? Some day, a truly revolutionary film about Christ will cast an actor who looks as Jesus most likely would have been: dark hair and skin, muscular, with shoulders like a linebacker.
Instead, "Gospel" is filled with what Pauline Kael rather bluntly termed, "that wretched masochistic piety that makes movies about Christ so sickly." Pasolini selected Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish college student, to play the pivotal role. Irazoqui is a thin, slightly-built man with a narrow, pointed face and dark, squinty eyes, whom Kael accurately described as a "loathsome prissy young man" who she couldn't wait to be crucified.
Irazoqui plays Christ as a lithe, but severe and joyless man who seems to have little or no human qualities (he smiles only once during the entire film). Pasolini sees no happiness or enthusiasm in Christ or his followers, and Irazoqui's portrayal makes Jesus into a dull, dewy-faced bore spouting Biblical teachings and parables as though he's reading them from cue cards, whether that be listing the beatitudes or droning out the Lord's Prayer.
Watching him teach the masses or even his own disciples, one has to wonder, who would be interested in listening to him, much less leaving their homes and families to follow him? There is so much distance between the leader and his followers, that it is almost impossible to accept their relationship. The disciples are uniformly interchangeable, and Christ addresses them in several scenes with his back turned to them as though they didn't matter. The same is true with the masses -- they are sad and pathetic when he begins to speak, and they are sad and pathetic when he finishes, as if his words had no effect whatsoever.
"The Gospel According to St. Matthew" is a trying film to sit through. The opening segments dealing with Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus, and the closing segments dealing with his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection are well-done. However, the middle hour and a half detailing Christ's missionary travels bog down immeasurably. At this point, the film's starkness and documentary style take on a monotonous, static quality that is almost unbearable.
What "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" unwittingly suggests is that there is no truly effective means of cinematically rendering the story of Christ. In doing the exact opposite of his predecessors and still failing to make a truly vibrant, resounding film that remains true to the nature of Christ without being preachy or pedantic, Pasolini proved that the grass might not be greener on the other side.
He also proved that adhering to the Biblical texts don't guarantee success -- what works in print doesn't always translate to screen. Twenty-four years later, Martin Scorsese made "The Last Temptation of Christ" based on a work of fiction, and got closer to the heart of Christ and his dual nature as man and God than Pasolini ever did.
(Note: This is actually a revision of an early critique. After hearing some reader response that I had "misunderstood" the film, I decided to do some more reading and take a second look at it. While my critical opinion remains unswayed, this review more clearly explains my position.)
©1997, 1998 James Kendrick