I just watched Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 classic, The Gospel According to St Matthew. Leave it to a gay atheist Marxist to create the most reverential portrayal of Jesus that I have ever seen. What’s most remarkable is how true it is to the source material. And that is probably the key. Pasolini doesn’t bring his own belief to soil it. Even if one were to grant that the gospels are true, there is too much folklore that goes along with them. For example, the widely held belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, even though there is nothing in the Bible that says that. But I also think Pasolini’s choice to present a single gospel was the correct one, because it doesn’t offer up opportunities to pick and choose.
Because everyone knows the story, the film doesn’t need to worry much about transitions. As a result, it is very fluid. The down side of this is that there is relatively little dramatic momentum to the story until the third act. But that is true of the Gospel of Matthew, and indeed all the gospels. They are highly episodic. It isn’t hard to understand why people so easily accepted that Matthew and Luke were based upon some lost (“Q”) document of sayings of Jesus. That’s how they come off: a very thin plot to hang the sayings on. So it was necessary for the film to have this form.
Even still, The Gospel According to St Matthew is really compelling. Pasolini is not normally considered an Italian neorealist, but his early films do at least have that sensibility. And this one is very explicitly so. But given that it is still a historical drama, it misses out on some of the best aspects of the movement — most especially the natural street scenes. But the actors are amateurs and the camera work is easy, even careless at times. It might seem amateurish if it were not constantly interesting to look at. Also: Enrico Maria Salerno, who does Jesus’ voice, is an incredible actor.
Another aspect of the film is that it includes far more humanity than comes across while reading the gospels. I think this is to be expected, given Pasolini’s humanist instincts. The best example of this is the scene where Jesus repudiates his mother. I have always felt that it lays very flat on the page. If anything, Jesus comes off as a monster. But here it seems more like something that Jesus feels he must do as part of his ministry. And his mother, although hurt, understands. There are many other renderings such as Judas’ emotional reaction to Jesus’ death sentence.
One thing I really like is what a scold Jesus is. He spends half the movie quite angry. It’s rather nice for a change. As I said, most people’s conception of Jesus is based in large part on folklore. Maybe they’ve gotten the wrong idea from “prince of peace.” But in the gospels, Jesus is mostly pissed off. And in the film, he only manages to smile a couple of times — usually when observing children. His demeanor changes in the third act, just as it does in the gospel.
It’s sad that a film like this does not do it for the modern American Christian. But perhaps it is not surprising. It’s heavy on theology and light on blood. No wonder Americans would so love The Passion of the Christ. Is that really what they get from Christianity? Mel Gibson claimed that he was most impressed that Jesus could suffer so much. I really think that’s a psychopathic reading of the Bible. And that seems to be the American reading of the Bible too.
But not surprisingly, smelling money, the owners of The Gospel According to St Matthew put out a shortened colorized English dubbed version of the film. I have no problem with the dubbing. For one thing, it was dubbed originally in Italian, as was typical of Italian films of that era. And the English dubbing is very good as far as I could tell with a spot check. But 45 minutes were taken out of the film. No doubt little of consequence was taken out; Pasolini paced the film deliberately; but I think that’s an important part of its temperament. Of course, I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t watched it. But the worst thing — the totally unacceptable thing — is the colorization. The film looks good in black and white. The colorization takes away all the lighting subtlety and leaves just the most annoying pastels imaginable. Added to this, the black and white print is not presented in progressive scan — so it doesn’t fill widescreen monitors. It’s just shameful.
Nonetheless, the film is quite an experience. And it is a loving tribute to one of the world’s great religions, as could only be done by a non-believer. If you are into film, it is worth checking out. And if you are a Christian, I really think you ought to watch the film. It is the closest you are likely to get to a direct rendering of a gospel on the screen. And you might learn something too.
Look at this! The whole film is available on YouTube. And I can’t say that the quality is any worse than the DVD I watched. Of course, you won’t get access to the colorized version. But if you want that, you can do penance for your sin against me by buying the DVD through Amazon here and send a couple of dimes my way for the referral fee. Anyway, here’s the good version: