Some of the most intriguing artistic tributes to faith and religion come from nonbelievers. A Man For All Seasons, the great drama of the life and martyrdom of St. Thomas More, was written for the stage and screen by the non-Christian Robert Bolt. The story of The Song of Bernadette, the Marian visionary of Lourdes, was first written as a historical novel by a Jewish author, Franz Werfel. And Mark Twain’s favorite work among all his books was his Joan of Arc.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was an atheist, indeed a Marxist, and his The Gospel According to Matthew is routinely interpreted as a proto-Marxist allegory. Yet Pasolini was perhaps first of all a poet, and the concepts of the sacred and the divine, far from repelling him as so much religious superstition, held for him a powerful appeal. In 1962 he came to Assisi in response to Pope John XXIII’s call for dialogue with non-Christian artists. While there, he read through a book of the Gospels "from beginning to end, like a novel," later proclaiming the story of Jesus "the most exalting thing one can read."
As a result of this experience, Pasolini became consumed with the notion of filming the life of Christ straight from one of the Gospels, shooting without a screenplay and taking no editorial license with the text. After completing The Gospel According to Matthew, he dedicated it "to the dear happy familiar memory of John XXIII."
Pasolini edits, but doesn’t rewrite; he omits some scenes and rearranges others, but on a scene-by-scene basis he follows Matthew’s dialogue almost verbatim, neither changing nor adding. (A few very minor departures are allowed, such as putting Matthew’s list of the names of the twelve disciples onto Jesus’ lips.)
What most differentiates Pasolini’s method from that of subsequent word-for-word productions such as The Gospel of John is Pasolini’s reliance on the image as the cinematic equivalent of the sacred writer’s narration. There is no voiceover narrative in The Gospel According to Matthew; whatever Matthew tells us himself, as opposed to reporting other people saying, must either be understood from the images or else be lost.
The result of this rigor is a film that is at once both more cinematic and less literary than a film like The Gospel of John, yet also less intrusive and more respectful of the text than adapted works that venture to put the filmmakers’ own words in the biblical figures’ mouths, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” or even The Miracle Maker.
Obviously, some things are lost, starting with the genealogical lists with which Matthew begins his Gospel. Other incidents take on a curious pantomime quality, and can only be fully understood in light of the Gospel text. Since Joseph and Mary have no dialogue in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, the actors are reduced to silence, and we must infer from her pregnant state and their meaningfully troubled expressions what is happening between them.
In fact, other than the angel speaking to Joseph in dreams, the wordless silence of this sequence is broken only by caption-like epigrams representing Matthew’s citations from the prophets, which count as quotations rather than narrative and amount to a sort of heavenly commentary on the gospel events.
The net effect of this sometimes unnatural silence is not, however, a stylized or surreal quality, but a strangely persuasive authenticity. Though Joseph and Mary never speak, they don’t come across like actors in a silent film. Instead, they seem like real people in a documentary that seems to have cut out the conversations that must have occurred, as opposed to fictionalized characters reciting a screenwriter’s glosses and interpolations.
A cast of non-actors (local peasants, laborers, shopkeepers, and the like) and location shooting in rural southern Italy (in the same region where Gibson would later film The Passion of the Christ) helps strip the production of artifice and creates a compelling peasant authenticity in the manner of Italian neo-realist cinema.
Enrique Irazoqui, a half Jewish, half Basque economics student who had never acted and had no thought of acting when he met Pasolini, plays Jesus. Irazoqui’s performance is often noted for its urgency and revolutionary zeal, but what most stands out to me is Irazoqui’s lack of self-consciousness and affectation. Few Jesus films manage to avoid the pitfall of making Christ seem artificially preoccupied with his own authority and status. In productions from the very early 1905 silent Life and Passion of Jesus Christ to “Jesus of Nazareth”, Christ often seems to wear his divinity like a royal robe (or, in the case of The Last Temptation of Christ, like a horsehair shirt).
At the opposite extreme is the casual, unassuming "buddy Jesus" of small-screen productions like the 1999 Jesus and the 2004 Judas, a figure lacking in authority and gravitas. The Gospel According to Matthew is one of the few Jesus films in which Jesus is at once authoritative and forceful, and also unaffected and, for lack of a better term, persuasively human. (Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ also avoids these pitfalls, in part because Jesus’ attention is consumed with his sufferings and his mission, not his deity.)
Pasolini’s film mirrors Jesus’ concern for the poor, but doesn’t exaggerate it, or reduce the Gospel to a political tract. (Had he wished to do so, Pasolini might have found Luke’s Gospel, with its special emphasis on the poor and powerless, more congenial than Matthew to such a purpose. Where Matthew has Jesus’ birth attended by the mysterious Magi, Luke’s Gospel has humble shepherds; in Matthew we read "Blessed are the poor in spirit," but in Luke we read simply "Blessed are you poor," followed by woes upon the rich.)
Needless to say, there’s none of the spectacle of a Hollywood biblical production, and virtually no special effects. The miraculous is depicted in a very minimalistic, matter-of-fact way that emphasizes meaning over display, and evokes the transcendent without stumbling over efforts to depict it directly.
Angels (including the tempter) are depicted without fanfare by actors simply attired, and the voice from heaven that speaks at Jesus’ baptism is merely an offscreen voice, though the camera pulls back and the actors look to heaven. Even the walking on water — the most effective such scene I have ever seen — is very restrained and straightforward, and plays like a filmed event rather than a special effect.
There are limitations to Pasolini’s approach. It would have been difficult to attempt the Transfiguration in this low-key method, and Pasolini doesn’t try. (Actually, nearly all Jesus films omit the Transfiguration, a notable exception being the 1905 Life and Passion).
But Pasolini’s method also yields remarkable successes. One of The Gospel According to Matthew’s special achievements is the way it finds a cinematic equivalent to the literary nature of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount, which fills three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, is widely regarded by biblical scholars not as a single speech originally given by Jesus on a single occasion, but as a collection of sayings and teachings that Jesus proclaimed on various occasions, probably repeatedly and in various forms, edited together into a single speech by the sacred writer.
In keeping with this, Pasolini likewise edits together his Sermon on the Mount sequence out of separate shots of Irazoqui proclaiming Jesus’ teaching at different times and places. The camera stays tight on Irazoqui’s face, keeping the edits relatively unobtrusive, just as they are in Matthew’s Gospel; of the differing circumstances or audiences that occasioned the various components that become the Sermon on the Mount we learn nothing in Matthew, and therefore Pasolini shows us nothing of them. Only the cuts themselves, along with varying backgrounds and lighting conditions, indicate that we are experiencing a continuity created in the editing room.
The score includes some curious choices, ranging from Mozart and Bach to blues and Billie Holiday. One could imagine The Gospel According to Matthew with no music at all, just as Carl Dreyer wanted The Passion of Joan of Arc to play with no music. Yet I think Christian film writer Seth Studer has a point when he argues in his review of the film, "Surprisingly, the soundtrack only adds to the film’s spiritual authenticity. By not confining itself to one style or era, the music invokes afresh the transcendence of Christ across the ages, across cultures."
There are also a few visual stylized departures from the film’s generally persuasive sense of authenticity, such as the outlandish headgear worn by the Jewish leaders, which a reader helpfully points out are based on the 15th-century frescos of Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca. Pasolini deliberately did no research, wanting to approach the Gospel as a story on its own terms rather than as a historical document, and costumer Danilo Donati, the same reader informs me, drew his designs from the artwork of the Italian Renaissance. (Once again one could draw a comparison to The Passion of Joan of Arc, where the otherwise historically accurate milieu was broken by a few touches of impressionistic architectural detailing.)
Some of the Jewish leaders’ hats are simply fantastical and silly-looking, but others are unmistakably reminiscent of bishops’ mitres. This has led some commentators unaware of the artistic heritage to suppose some sort of anti-ecclesiastical statement by Pasolini. In keeping with Piero’s work, the connection might legitimately be seen as an open-ended commentary on the human frailty of all human authority, even divinely appointed authority.
In spite of how he tells the story, Pasolini may well have been sympathetic to Jewish sensitivity on this point. One reason for the Jewish leaders’ whimsical hats, then, may have been to suggest that the Jewish leaders in this story are not to be taken as representative of the Jewish people.
The limitations of Pasolini’s approach become most apparent during the understated Passion narrative — possibly the mildest Passion ever filmed, even milder than the most kid-friendly Jesus movies, such as The Miracle Maker or the 1905 Life and Passion. In fact, the single least persuasive image in all of The Gospel According to Matthew may be the sight of Irazoqui’s hair glossy and unmussed in the center of the crown of thorns.
Pasolini shows us Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross, but Jesus himself shows no sign of the difficulty that would have required Simon to do so, and walks composedly behind him. For almost the first time in the film, it seems like play-acting rather than reality. On the other hand, Jesus’ death itself is so strikingly underscored, with a black screen (accompanied a mysterious quotation from Isaiah 14), that it almost seems the film may end there.
In the end, perhaps the most enduring achievement of The Gospel According to Matthew is an ironic one, given Pasolini’s Marxism: No other life-of-Christ film is so contemplative, inviting the viewer simply to meditate on the life and teaching of Jesus. (Only The Passion of the Christ matches this meditative quality, but it’s a Passion play, not a life-of-Christ film.)
In contrast to the revolutionary, action-oriented montage cinema of pioneering Soviet filmmakers, Pasolini uses long, unbroken shots. His method eschews interpretive mediation between the viewer and Matthew’s text; questions of back story, narrative explanation, or character development are all set aside, so that the text can speak for itself. He who has ears, let him hear.
As a Catholic Christian film writer, there are few things more gratifying to me than to hear that my writing has connected with a reader who doesn’t share my faith. To get an email from an atheist or agnostic expressing appreciation for a review, to know that my work was able to reach across the divide that separates us and communicate something meaningful, is for me among the most rewarding aspects of my work.
The Gospel According to Matthew came about as a result of Pasolini’s response to John XXIII’s call for renewed dialogue between the Church and non-Christian artists. I’d like to think that Pasolini would have been gratified that his film should continue to speak to Christians in a meaningful way about Jesus and the Gospel.
As far as I know, at this time there is no good Region 1 (North America) DVD edition of The Gospel According to St. Matthew. This seems to be the fault of the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation in Rome, which not only controls the prints, but forbids the use of chapter stops, on the theory that the film must be watched in one sitting. I have heard that the Region 2 (UK) DVD from Palisades Tartan may be better; it doesn't seem to be available from Amazon.com, but can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk.
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The large hats of the Pharisees that you spend so much time speculating about in your review of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew have a simple explanation. They are directly inspired by the way the Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin are depicted in the frescos of the painter Piero Della Francesca. In fact, the costume designer of the film, the great Danilo Donati, based all of his costume designs for the film not on historically accurate research, but on the way this period was depicted in Italian Renaissance painting of the 1400s. If you look at the film and then study the paintings of Piero Della Francesca, Masacio, Uccello etc. you will find everything there.
For the most famous, and striking example is the huge hats of the Pharisees, please see the frescos by Piero, The Story of the True Cross, which are in Arrezzo, Tuscany, where the Pharisees wear these huge hats. But there are many more examples. Those odd, plate-like helmets that the Romans wear are also found in the Piero Della Francesca frescos. Piero didn’t know what Romans and Pharisees really looked like — so he used his imagination — and it is from Piero’s fantasy that Pasolini and Donati drew their inspiration.
Watch the film — Herod’s costume — the three wisemen — Salome’s costume — the rich man who won’t give up his wealth — all these costume designs come from Italian painting of the 1400s. All of this adds another interesting layer to the meaning of the film. Pasolini wasn’t interested in historical accuracy — but rather in the relevance of this great tale through history. I hope this helps clarify your speculation about why Pasolini chose to use those huge hats!
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.