A film about religion more than a religious film, Pasolini's classic still pleasures and provokes in equal measure.
The late Bill Hicks had an extended, sweary riff where he puzzled over the placing of bibles in hotel rooms. Yet, had some kind soul not left a copy of the New Testament in a hotel in Assisi in the early '60s, director Pier Paolo Pasolini may never had read it in a single sitting, and subsequently never decided to make what would become one of his greatest films, 1964’s The Gospel According to St Matthew.
Pasolini had already acquired a reputation in Italy as something of a provocateur. His segment in the 1963 portmanteau film, Ro.Go.Pa.G., was denounced for its portrayal of Christ as a snivelling, greedy scallywag who died from gouging on Ricotta cheese.
As a Marxist, atheist homosexual, this mischievous satire felt very much the product of a director out to needle the highly-strung principles of the European religious establishment and try to see what he can get away with on film.
In the looming shadow of Ro.Go.Pa.G., it’s somewhat baffling that The Gospel According to St Matthew even got made. Yet, it did, and the most fascinating question the film still raises – especially in auteurist circles – is whether it stands as an example of a filmmaker galvanising or divesting of his aesthetic and philosophical ideals.
Essentially a ‘straight’ retelling of the life of Christ (who is played with fervent intensity by Enrique Irazoqui), which, on its surface, seldom editorialises or strays towards controversy, the film was fully embraced by the religious community to the extent that a colourised version was made to capitalise on the Bible belt buck.
General familiarity of with the text makes this one of Pasolini’s most easily approachable films, as we’re given a Jesus Greatest Hits package which covers everything from Herod’s violent purging of first borns via the loaves and fishes, walking on water and through to Christ’s death by crucifixion. While the passionate sincerity of the delivery initially makes you wonder why Pasolini should change his tack so completely, the anachronistic tics and subtleties of the filmmaking offer room for deeper consideration.
Eclectic, albeit carefully chosen soundtrack selections emphasise the geographic and temporal reach of the material, as Bach’s ‘Mass in B Minor’ segues into Odetta’s wailing blues number, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ and the film even opens with Congolese tribal music. It’s a small but piercing touch, reminding the viewer that we can’t consider the biography of Christ without taking into account the specific time and place in which the events purportedly occurred.
Yet, while he creates a disconnect with the music, the busy, mobile shooting style successfully transplants the emotive precepts of Italian neorealism back to the Biblical era. One thing that connects all of Pasolini’s films is the unflinching way he photographs faces and bodies, finding a tremendous, grotesque beauty in the extras and supporting cast, displaying an almost Christ-like empathy towards all of God’s creations.
The Gospel According to St Matthew earns its sense of sublime by placing Jesus’s acts of hocus pocus into real landscapes containing real buildings and populated by real people. Indeed, this is as much about the appeal of religion to the poverty-stricken masses as it is about the revolutionary zeal of Jesus himself.
The work of directors like Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Bruno Dumont and Terrence Malick (to name a few) raises questions concerning the difference between 'religious' and 'spiritual' cinema. Do these filmmakers produce work that decries the teachings and standards of religion, or are they using the context of theology to examine something more universal and untenable?
Even though Pasolini’s film offers traditional religious nourishment aplenty, there is still the sense that he’s delicately manipulating the material to mine a more sophisticated seam. The manner in which he films the actual miracles is fascinating: they all occur very suddenly with a single cut. Not only is he happy to accept that Jesus was able to perform physical miracles, he also makes a point about cinema. For Pasolini, every cut is a potential miracle.
The Gospel According to St Matthew is showing at London’s ICA over the weekend beginning March 9, and is later released on a typically sparkling Blu-ray transfer by Eureka!'s The Masters of Cinema on March 26.
Pasolini’s biography of Christ gets a short run at London’s ICA prior to its plush Blu-ray conversion by Eureka's Masters of Cinema.
A film about religion more than a religious film, it still pleasures and provokes in equal measure.
Definitely one for multiple viewings, and arguably up there with Pasolini’s best.