Throw yourself into the BFI's Pasolini retrospective with this radical and striking interpretation of the life of Christ.
The late Bill Hicks had an extended, sweary riff with which 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 gorging on Ricotta cheese.
Coming from 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 anti-clerical shadow of Ro.Go.Pa.G., it’s somewhat baffling that The Gospel According To St Matthew even got made. 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 (played with fervent, Falconetti-like intensity by Enrique Irazoqui), which, on its surface, seldom editorialises or stray towards controversy. So much so that the film was fully embraced by the religious community to the extent that a colourised version was made to capitalise on the devotional dollar.
General familiarity 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 Pasolini 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 imperfect creations.
Pasolini’s biography of Christ heads up a retrospective of the director at London’s BFI Southbank.
A film about religion more than a religious film, it still pleasures, provokes and dumbfounds.
Transcendent. Definitely one for multiple viewings and arguably up there with Pasolini’s greatest.