Pier Paolo Pasolini was a homosexual and a Marxist, an atheist and an artistic lightning rod. When he turned his attention to the life of Christ in 1964, many were shocked, especially coming on the heels of his latest short, which had drawn fire for being blasphemous. And yet his film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is not a rebuke of Christianity or the Church, but rather is a profoundly simple celebration of the radical aspects of Christ’s teachings. Rather than a deconstruction, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is a reconstruction of Christ, recapturing from the grips of the greedy and the powerful the peasant laborer who would become a prophet and Messiah.
Pasolini is one of my great cinematic gaps. As a fan of extreme cinema I have of course seen Salo, but that’s it – I have no other Pasolini in my eyes. This week I decided that with Christmas on the horizon and a desire to watch something meaningful (with work being as busy as it is I only get out to blockbusters lately), I would give Pasolini’s account of Christ my time. I am beyond glad I did.
What I expected from this film was something lush and sweeping; instead what I got was something stark and personal. Shot in black and white and using the Italian neorealist style, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew often feels more like a docudrama than a Biblical epic. Populated with non-actors, sometimes shot from a medium or long distance, the Holy Land of Pasolini’s movie is a real place, a truth against which the quiet pageant of the Gospel plays out. The non-actors, with their intriguing faces and low-impact acting style (a lot of this movie consists of people looking at the camera in a mixture of awe and confusion, which might very well be real), destroy any fakeness; after thirty minutes have gone by you have luxuriated into the reality of this world, and all that happens within it feels right.
Pasolini took an interesting tack with his adaptation of Matthew; he shot the film without any script but the Bible, and he only used Matthew itself. He didn’t pull from other Gospels, canonical or gnostic, and he didn’t pull from outside sources. In fact, every line of dialogue in the movie is lifted from the pages of the Gospel (seeing familiar Bible verses presented not in the translations I know but in English translations of Italian translations was absolutely fascinating). By using just Matthew – a Gospel that is very episodic, with the first half being sort of a montage – Pasolini creates a deeply reverent portrait of Christ that also speaks to Pasolini’s economic and social beliefs. This Christ is a radical.
Christ is played by Enrique Irazoqui, 19 at the time. He is a beautiful Christ, young and slender. This Christ does not have the six pack of the figure seen hanging on crosses in churches across the globe, but rather looks like a coffee shop hipster, who with his scraggly beard might be overheard arguing about the films of Pasolini. Irazoqui’s lovely eyes and soft face make for a shocking contrast with some of the words that come from his mouth – and the voice behind those words. Christ was dubbed by Enrico Maria Salerno… who was the Italian voice for Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy.
In The Gospel According to Saint Matthew Christ is forever on the move, giving his sermons and taking questions as he leads his followers through the sere Mediterranean landscape. When he stops it is often to rage – at inequality, at hypocrites, at the Jewish power structure. As the movie goes on this Christ becomes more and more irritable; going from the Sermon on the Mount to the cursing of the fig tree feels really natural here – yes, this Jesus would for sure curse a tree that didn’t offer him fruit. Taking the words of the Gospel as they are known, Pasolini turns his Christ into a fiery orator who decries the rich every chance he has, and whose agitations grow more pronounced as he gets closer to Jerusalem. By the time he is throwing down in a parable battle with the Pharisees this Christ is honed, his every word a weapon. This sequence, with the Jewish elders throwing scriptural questions at Jesus and Jesus swatting them away like gnats, is absolutely exhilarating, and Pasolini is just shooting a bunch of guys looking at each other.