Pasolini's Passion: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s career is one of many glaring contradictions, all of which are congruous with his talent as a director. His cinema is both lyrical, poetic with tendencies toward masochistic, scatology (mostly attributed to his Fascist allegory Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), with roots in the neorealist tradition. He’s also a mystic, favoring weighty literary adaptations later in his career, with bawdy, earthy realism as their anchor to their mythic proportions. Pasolini was an outed and bold Marxist and atheist, so in checking off the list of what makes Pasolini distinctly Pasolini, he doesn’t sound like the candidate for a movie about the life and teaching of Christ, right?
Well, if history’s taught us anything it’s that sometimes the least likely candidate is the best candidate, and many have gone on record (including the Vatican press) stating that The Gospel According to St. Matthew is one of the best and most faithful film adaptations of one of the Gospels. Being made with such unemphatic dedication (the bulk of the dialog was culled directly from the text) as the director's passion, and respect as a writer of prose found the material spoke for itself.
There can be some understandable hesitations to the film, and selling a neorealist (which, to many means rough-hewn with a small budget) depiction of the titular gospel might not seem all that alluring. But Pasolini’s wields substantial power in this form of spiritual art and allegorical fable and operates on a wavelength that so many other filmmakers can’t grasp: that "passion" isn’t equated by pain. Apparently, Mel Gibson missed this for his torture porn masquerading as historical realism, his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, but that more or less sums up Gibson's career as a director, which is another topic in itself.
Pasolini’s canvas is the Calabrian outlands; there’s no vying for historical realism because in the avenue of neorealism the practices of centuries' past can still play out seamlessly. The importance of the material as we know it is indicative of Christ and his disciples, but the cast is mostly unrecognizable (Pasolini's mother, has a small part!). Jesus and his apostles could be any face in the crowd. There’s no pomp or visual indulgence throughout the entirety of this film; Jesus performs miracles, heals the lepers, walks on water, but it’s evident that he’s an embodiment of humanity and compassion, not a showboating magician.
Pasolini’s dedicated elaboration of The Gospel According to St. Matthew wouldn’t keep him from his ardent political fervor, though it would be comparatively subtle to his peripheral work. For those who are more familiar with his later work, specifically Salò, might have a hard time quantifying the words “Pasolini and subtle,” especially in concert with his political acumen which is on par with blunt force trauma in all of the sadomasochistic, torture, and scatological imagery. The Gospel According to St. Matthew paints in earthy strokes, and Pasolini’s Christ is a deviation from the chiseled anglicism identified with Christian iconography; here he (like everyone else in the cast) looks like and an average man of the times, subtle but exuding an efficacious screen presence. Pasolini casts Jesus as an outsider, a stalwart of belief, understated but fiery and stoic.
There are some Marxist overtones to this portrait of an outcast savior, and his unadorned presence reinforces the proletariat undercurrent especially when he cleanses the temple in Jerusalem. An account in the Bible where Jesus drives out the merchants and moneychangers from the temple during Passover; their commercial activities, and currency-exchanging Greek and Roman currencies were taxed for Sheckles. Jesus’ cleansing is restrained to overturning tables and protesting their presence in a manner that evokes that of a contemporary advocate, demonstrating disdain for advantageous profiteers.
The contrasting elements in The Gospel According to St. Matthew is emblematic of Pasolini’s career and plays to the resonant power this film retains over the years. It’s not the most accessible film but if it can reach atheists, and wear the pedigree as one of the best films on the subject by the Vatican Press, it would be an understatement to say that the film is an achievement. While the soundtrack is a noted blend of spiritualism ranging from Bach (whose composition St. Matthew Passion would make an appearance in the opening of Scorsese’s Casino, who enthusiastically championed the film) to early blues songs from Odetta and Billie Willie Johnson. Sometimes the bluesy interludes work with and against the tone of the movie, but it’s hardly a nitpick as their tonal inflection is in tune with the films revisionist tenor.
Pasolini was capable of great things, and his elegiac rendering is worthy of your attention. There's a 90-minute colorized version that should be avoided. A very cheap DVD has both the colorized and original Italian language, black and white version. There's a black and white, English-dubbed version on Amazon Prime right now.