The Gospel According to Matthew
Director / Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini / Editing: Nino Baragli / DP: Tonino Delli Colli
Cast: Enrique Irazoqui / Margherita Caruso / Susanna Pasolini / Marcello Morante / Mario Socrate / Paola Tedesco / Rossano Di Rocco
A Tale as Old as Time…
Many were called to the task of depicting the story of Christ up on the silver screen, but few were chosen. Of the few that made the grade, I’d have to say this small-scale, un-showy film by Pasolini might be the most effective.
Cards on the table: I came to The Gospel According to Matthew as a dyed-in-the-wool agnostic yet with, what I hoped, was an open mind shaped in-part, by thrilling stories discovered in Sunday School, as much as watching films on Sunday afternoon TV.
That probably explained why I’ve got a soft-spot for all those lurid Technicolour ‘sword & sandal’ epics of the Fifties as well as other, less grandiose films tackling the same themes. Take Mel Gibson’s own Passion of the Christ (2004) for example, that thrilled me with its craft and attention to detail, but left me cold with the endless scourging… Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) stirred controversy on its release but now seems a little tame. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) was on-the-nose as well, if you read it a certain way; how the most humble & unassuming of folk, can actually turn out to be the vessel into which others pour their hopes remains quite a potent idea, if you stop to think about it…
It was heartening then, to refresh my memory of Pasolini’s background for this review. A committed Marxist intellectual in his native Italy, Pasolini was a noted poet, novelist & essayist before he moved into film. He was also atheistic, having rejected the Catholicism to which he’d been subjected as a child and young man, possibly because, as a homosexual in post-war Italy, the church would’ve offered him no shelter. I’ve seen a few of his films over the years. The parables within Hawks & Sparrows (1966) made for an intriguing post-modern fantasy-meditation. Oedipus Rex (1967) was another cautionary tale, given a larger budget than Matthew and was again, largely successful; maybe I’ll get around to reviewing them one day. His last film, prior to his unfortunate murder, was the notorious Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) which was a difficult film to process, being offensive, harrowing and downright shitty at times. One of the most challenging films I’ve ever seen, that one, with images I found hard to shake.
But we’re here for Matthew, not its Kryptonite…
Going-in to the film, this is what I expected: lots of close-ups and tight portraits of expressive, open faces (usually non-professional actors) and a minimalistic approach to dialogue and I’m happy to report I wasn’t disappointed. From its opening shots, featuring a speechless Mary & Joseph as they’re confronted with the realisation she’s pregnant (yet still a virgin), we’re in familiar territory.
Angry at what he sees as Mary’s betrayal, Joseph stomps-off to nearby Bethlehem and falls asleep; waking to a vision of the Angel of the Lord, who tells him that Mary carries ‘the Son of God’ and that he is to be named ‘Jesus’. That’s the first dialogue of the film; in fact, the Angel gets the only dialogue for the film’s first twenty minutes: remarkable film-making this, as Pasolini dances around the familiar story using extended takes of wordless scenes, against a diverse soundtrack including everything from Congolese tribal chanting to snatches of Handel and Mozart. It’s a sonic jumble, yet somehow his choices make sense if we are indeed witnessing an event with ramifications for the world as a whole; as if music is taking-up the slack when mere words aren’t enough.
It looks good, too. The film was shot on-location in Southern Italy, after a scouting trip to the Holy Land proved disappointing as a filmic backdrop. Pasolini found a modernistic Israel, with its iconic, pastoral landscape despoiled by tower-blocks built to house the returning diaspora and its open spaces filling with kibbutz collective farms, along with afforestation, where once there was just scrub or desert. The Palestinian Territories were better suited to his requirements, as was Jordan, but overall, he was dismayed at the landscape’s small-scale; too small to act as the ‘mythic’ backdrop he wanted. In stark contrast, Southern Italy was yet to be redeveloped in areas such as Puglia and others, and Pasolini found all he needed on his doorstep. Watching the film, I can’t say I was left short-changed by that decision. Some of his locations looked Biblical already. One astonishing village, clinging to the side of a steep valley and facing an undeveloped opposite side, took my breath away; as though Pasolini had used time travel and was showing us scenes from 2000 years ago…
Back to the film, then. At the point where Mary, Joseph and their new baby are visited by the Three Kings, etc, Pasolini opts to have a negro spiritual for the soundtrack: a spine-chilling take on ‘Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child’ by Odetta, which is a heartbreaking song about loss and loneliness that feels appropriate here. Pasolini knows when to have his script back-off, which is a sign of how sure footed he was with this material. Only a non-believer with no theistic baggage, could’ve kept things this low-key – or had the strength of character to embrace such unorthodox musical choices. Had this been one of those grand Hollywood epics of which I spoke earlier, a key moment such as the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ would’ve been accompanied by a lush orchestral score and choir, yet Pasolini gives us a blues-song and leaves us to get on with it. It’s so un-showy as to be an anti-cinematic statement in its own right, yet it works.
The first dialogue not spoken by the Angel occurs some twenty minutes in, courtesy of John the Baptist, who’s doing his thing at a riverside, when the now-adult Jesus arrives seeking baptism. Again, this is remarkable film-making. To this point, Mary & Joseph have been mute actors in a ‘Passion Play’ of pure cinema, that could very well have been shot as a true silent film. These distinctive, expressive actors have been directed in such a way as to convey elements of ‘performance’ for which words are unnecessary.
I wonder what led Pasolini to this creative decision?
I think that what we’re seeing, is the projection of something divine – something indescribable – onto two, simple people ill-equipped to deal with the experience intellectually. Both Mary & Joseph are therefore ‘merely’ the guides for something bigger than they can comprehend to emerge. Heck, that’s probably why the Angel has to appear to both them and us more than once: she’s the narrator, after all. She’d still be there in a silent version of Pasolini’s film, but she alone would’ve been granted intertitles.
With this first sight of Jesus-the-man, I ought to mention the actor: Enrique Irazoqui. A Catalonian student of literature at the time, he’d visited Pasolini in Rome to discuss one of the Director’s own novels, but on seeing his open features, it’s reported that Pasolini soon forgot the reason for the interview… I can see why, as throughout the film, Irazoqui carries himself with a dignity – a bearing, if you will – in keeping with the role he eventually accepted. He’s as humble as the film built around him. Based on the small sample of films I’ve seen that cover this story, this might very well be the quietest, perhaps most realistic of them all and as a result, becomes all the more moving because of that lack of spectacle.
Consider the Miracles, for example. Given his limited budget, Pasolini was reduced to using dodgy prostheses and a little jump-cut camera trickery, to achieve what Cecil B. DeMille might’ve spent thousands of dollars pursuing in the name of spectacle. Even these low-key sequences left Pasolini feeling a sense of ‘disgusting pietism’ as he admitted in a later interview. It was as if they had to be there, to validate the wonder implied in Jesus Christ’s teachings; an obligation without which, his efforts at retelling the story might be undermined.
The story unfolds as expected, but it’s when we get to the scene where Jesus is condemned by the Pharisees, that Pasolini tries a little experimentation with his camera. For the first time, he takes the POV of one of Christ’s disciples – Matthew – who’s book forms the basis of the story – and uses a hand-held camera to weave through a crowd of onlookers in search of a better view. The sound is left untouched and ambient, so we hear mostly birdsong with precious few snatches of dialogue drifting from across the courtyard. Again, it’s a remarkable sequence of visual storytelling. As Jesus himself predicted ‘You will deny me three times’ and this is what then happens; Pasolini reverting to traditional set-ups to show Matthew as he runs for his own safety. Once out of danger, he has the actor crouch in the gutter and begin weeping as he pulls-back his camera to reveal the empty streets of this Biblical-looking hillside village.
The final scenes of crucifixion are handled with perfunctory grace, as if Pasolini had already covered what he needed. I was struck by the look of anguish on the face of the elderly Mary during this sequence however and was startled to learn that she was actually Pasolini’s own mother; one can only imagine what he might’ve asked her to imagine, to conjure such a look of such pain and helpless love.
In conclusion, then, I was struck hardest by the depiction of Jesus as such a political figure. He’s quite a firebrand here, as he turns-out the moneylenders from the temple or challenges people to follow him; quite a change from his early demeanour, in which he’s beatific and self-contained. By the end, he’s both rightfully angry and accepting of the inevitability that he’s to meet his death as a result of betrayal. Yet Irazoqui balances these conflicting emotions with some success, I must say.
The role of Jesus Christ must be one of the most thankless in the history of cinema. So many have approached and tackled it with varying degrees of success, either commercial or its reception from both clergy and believers alike. That Matthew is so well-regarded by all sides, is a mark of how Pasolini succeeded against the odds, in bringing a low-budget almost ‘Indie’ sensibility to an iconic tale and re-interpreting it in a manner unseen either before or since.
The film is not without its problems, but they are minor in the great scheme of things. I’ll start with the Disciples, who are lumped together as little more than a Greek chorus, with little chance in the screenplay for self-identification. Instead, they follow Jesus like a well-intentioned gaggle of Paparazzi. Along with the Director himself, I’m also unconvinced by the depiction of the Miracles; they come-off as crass and amateurish, out-of-keeping with the sober tone elsewhere.
That very tonality however, also suggests another missed opportunity with the film, as Christ lacks a sense of humour! The film’s dedicated to Pope John XXIII and was part-commissioned by The Vatican, which might explain such reverentiality. Then again, it might’ve been Pasolini himself, who adopted such a severe tone, perhaps to reflect the severity of his own religious schooling. But I think he missed a trick here, for is not a sense of humour, as vital a component of humanity, as compassion and a capacity for love? Do we not reveal our own ‘soul’ when we laugh? In this depiction, Christ is a dour, serious curmudgeon when the reality is that, more often than not, he surely would have enjoyed a laugh ‘with the lads’ as a way of leavening the task ahead… He was only, err, human, after all, wasn’t he?
So while the film hasn’t made me a believer, it HAS made me think and really, I couldn’t have asked for more than that.
If you give up your life for me, you will find it.