As an avowed Marxist, homosexual, and atheist, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini may seem to some a dubious choice to have made one of the most austere, faithful, and simply one of the best films about the life and death of Jesus Christ. But, with The Gospel According to Matthew, from 1964, that’s exactly what the controversial filmmaker, poet, novelist, and theorist did. This gritty and unpolished depiction of the life of Christ contains many of the narrative hallmarks featured in other film versions of the same story: the virgin birth, the early miracles, the apostles, Christ’s persecution and, ultimately, the crucifixion. However, no other cinematic depiction of this well-known chronicle looks, sounds, or feels quite like this one.
Before making this film, Pasolini had directed his first feature, Accattone!, in 1961, followed by Mamma Roma, starring the astonishing and incomparable Anna Magnani, in 1962. He next directed the short segment, La ricotta, for the 1963 compilation film Ro.Go.Pa.G. La ricotta was about a film crew, led by its director (played by Orson Welles), as they make a movie about Christ. One of the crewmembers takes a position on a cross set up for the crucifixion scene, where, due to all of the food he had just consumed (including large quantities of cheese – hence the title), he dies, unbeknownst to everyone else, from apparent indigestion. This provocative short film, coupled with some of Pasolini’s past writing – a good deal of which was heavily condemnatory of the Catholic Church – led to charges of blasphemy and defamation of religion against the filmmaker.
Nevertheless, one day as Pasolini was preparing to leave Rome, so a version of the story goes, the roads were closed and traffic was at a standstill. As it so happened, the Pope was in town as well and was also set to depart; Pasolini wasn’t going anywhere, at least not until the Pope made his exit. With nothing else to do, Pasolini found his hotel room bible. He began reading and was inspired. He found his next film subject – however unlikely. It was, as he would jokingly tell Lucio S. Caruso of the Catholic Pro Civitate Christiana in Assisi, a “delightful and diabolical calculation” on the part of his Christian friends.
It took much convincing, but eventually Pasolini received the blessing and the assistance of the church. He argued that, aside from being well-versed in Catholicism, as much of Italy at the time certainly was, he also had a profound compassion for marginal figures, those neglected, those on the fringes of society, those, in other words, whom Christ himself would have embraced. Having spent considerable time in the poor slums of Italy, the borgatas, Pasolini said he saw scavengers and hustlers literally as “fourteen-year old Christs.” He also understood, due to his political, sexual, and ideological inclinations, what it was like to face persecution. It’s little wonder then that his Christ would be shown as a strong, revolutionary figure. He was, as Pasolini saw him, “an intellectual in a world of the poor, available for revolution.”
There was also the commonality of maternal relations. The Mary and Christ relationship is obviously crucial to the Christian and especially Catholic faith, but Pasolini too had a notable bond with his mother, and she would always play a vital role in his life. (It’s understandable, and revealing, that his own mother would portray the older Mary in this film.)
With economics student Enrique Irazoqui cast in the lead (amazingly, Jack Kerouac was at one point considered), Pasolini’s aim was to “follow, point for point, the gospel according to Saint Matthew, without making any script and without any reduction.” In the note to Caruso, he added, “I will faithfully translate images, without omissions to or deletions from the story. Even the dialogue must be strictly that of Saint Matthew, without even a line of explanation or feeder lines: because no images or words inserted can ever be of the poetic height of the text.… I want to make a work of poetry. Not a religious work in the current sense of the term nor a work of ideology. In words both simple and poor: I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer – at least not consciously. But I believe Christ to be divine and I believe there was in him a humanity so great, rigorous and ideal as to go beyond the common terms of humanity.”
The essential narrative of The Gospel According to Matthew has already been mentioned above (and depicted often elsewhere); it is a sort of highlight reel of biblical events from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection. But in this well-tread territory of widely known and illustrated occurrences, Pasolini incorporates his distinct style, a style still very much in development at this early stage of his filmmaking career, giving the film a roughhewn formal quality. The film was shot in southern Italy, as evidence of industrialized modern life in the initially planned Palestine kept Pasolini from more authentic locales; a continual distancing from modernity would permeate much of his later work as well, and in many ways, it formed the primary basis of his interest in the stories that make up his “Trilogy of Life.”
The camera work here is at times jarring, the editing occasionally mismatched, yet there are moments of strikingly composed dynamism. With cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, who would shoot most of Pasolini’s films from here on out, The Gospel According to Matthew is quite possibly the director’s most visually appealing work, even more so than his “Trilogy” with its colorful grandeur. That is not to say, however, that there aren’t moments of graphically depicted brutality. The massacre of young children, for example, is truly harrowing in its cruelness; this type of violence, separate from the violence against Christ, has rarely been shown in similar movies.
Like Fellini, though for completely different reasons, Pasolini too knew how to utilize the physical features of average, nonprofessional Italians. The impact of Christ’s words are accentuated by forcefully assertive framings of Irazoqui as he preaches, intercut with the faces of his parishioners, their expressions (or lack of) conveying the reverberating significance of his words. The continuous close-ups with which Pasolini films these individuals are humbling in their purity and simplicity. Perhaps it’s the subject matter of the film in this case, but while Pasolini would commonly use such facial compositions, seldom have they appeared this genuinely affected.
Irazoqui’s Christ is worth comparing to other, more famous performances as Jesus. He is undeniably engaging and intense, but he is not without clearly apparent benevolence. He doesn’t quite have the humor of Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, but he is also nowhere near the painfully grave Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. Interestingly, a quick IMDb search reveals that Irazoqui would act in two more films in the mid-’60s and would not reappear in a movie until 1992, and he would again vanish from the screen until 2008.
As much as the film’s visual qualities, The Gospel According to Matthew also has what is arguably Pasolini’s most interesting use of sound. In the beginning, little is spoken, the narrative developments derived from the expressive faces and a foreknowledge of the elements that transpire. (With this verbal silence, Pasolini includes a powerful scene of Joseph’s seldom-depicted anguish.) Background noise also goes in and out, and voiceovers (including one from God, no less) are intermittently inserted. And while his later features would contain scores by the venerated Ennio Morricone, the mosaic of preexisting music in this film is remarkable: there’s Bach’s fitting “St Matthew Passion,” which was also used brilliantly in Accattone!, and the seemingly incongruous yet nonetheless potent “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” performed by Odetta.
The Gospel According to Matthew premiered Sept. 4, 1964 at the 25th Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Special Jury Prize. It would also go on to receive the Catholic Film Office Grand Prize and was nominated for three Oscars. Critical reception, as one would expect with this topic – and with this filmmaker – was mixed. It was called, “A religious film and religious propaganda beneath the facade of a faithful transcription of the Gospel made by a Marxist….” It was also, “A fine film, a Christian film that produces a profound impression.”
“The author – without renouncing his own ideology – has faithfully translated, with a simplicity and a human density sometimes moving, the social message of the Gospel – in particular the love for the poor and oppressed – sufficiently respecting the divine dimension of Christ,” wrote one critic. “The fact is that this film is an authentic preaching of Communism, using the words of Matthew maliciously interpreted … to have given this work a prize, and even in the presence of Fathers [of the church] was a humiliating concession to error … to confusion,” wrote another.
With The Gospel According to Matthew, Pasolini’s distinctive style at the time, a modern, art-film blend of neorealism and documentary, is rugged and unadorned. The mostly amateur performers are competent enough, particularly Irazoqui, and the settings, as well as the costumes, are suitably authentic. By comparison, it’s hard to imagine that today this film could stir the sort of contentious reaction of Hail Mary, The Last Temptation of Christ, or The Passion of the Christ (make no mistake though, King of Kings it is not). As with most movies dealing with religion, views on the film are obviously going to be heavily swayed by personal belief, usually before the true quality of filmmaking can properly be assessed (it seems Darren Aronofsky is finding this out right now). But if one is able to wipe aside spiritual sensibilities and focus on craft, The Gospel According to Matthew surely stands as one of the best films to undertake this sensitive subject. Indeed, it is simply one of the great works of world cinema.