The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
“Could these also be reasons why God has given us two creation stories and four versions of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?” - Merold Westphal
Pasolini, a dedicated Marxist, might seem like one of the last people to make a reverent film about the life of Christ. But, his 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a landmark in the genre, and marks a bridge between two traditions of putting Jesus on screen.
We’ll split the two traditions into modern and postmodern.
Modern tellings usually combine material from all four gospels, and takes a comprehensive approach. The Greatest Story Ever Told is a part of this tradition. Despite its Hollywood epic flair, it essentially attempts to re-create the story “as it happened,” more-or-less, from a third-person, omniscient point of view.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ also falls into this pattern. Passion is so concerned with historical accuracy, its characters speak in Aramaic. This isn’t how Mel Gibson sees Jesus; this is “how it happened.”
Pasolini’s Gospel breaks away in many ways with this tradition. By using only Matthew as a source, Pasolini acknowledges the individual perspective he has of God. He uses contemporary music to locate his film within a particular time and place, giving it context. And, he acknowledges his politics by giving Christ a bit more of a bite when talking about social justice. Although Pasolini used the text as the script, he also consciously made the film The Gospel According to Matthew According to Pasolini.
The neo-realist style; with matter-of-fact storytelling and non-professional actors; usually smacks of arrogant modernism. It plays of purity of style to find ‘true cinema’ through a formula and through excising irrational flourish. With Gospel, I’m not so sure. For one, the actors aren’t especially good. Is Pasolini using their lack of talent to break up the narrative? Or am I just too harsh on untrained actors?
One way in which Pasolini’s Gospel stays well within the modern style is his emphasis on the divinity of Christ.
The two styles could just as easily be titled “God” and “Man.” In films like The Greatest Story and Gibson’s Passion, Christ has a consistently dazed, ethereal look about him. It’s like the Sunday School plays where Jesus’s microphone has the bass amped up and echoes. He speaks everything as a grand, Shakespearean pronouncement.
“Blessed be the peacemakers!”
In the “God” films, Jesus sticks out in Israel like a sore thumb. Jesus never slouches, never engages in small talk and never scratches an itch. If it were any other character in any other film, we would assume he was possessed or on drugs. I get that feeling from Pasolini’s Jesus. He’s more of a three-dimensional icon than a human being.
Our postmodern “Man” films about Jesus go far to the other direction. Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ portray a Christ so human, that even he is unsure of his own divinity. Scorsese’s Christ doesn’t just weep, but he also errs.
Of course, Scorsese intent isn’t to find the non-divine “historical Jesus” of the Jesus Seminar. Rather, he’s exploring a particular angle on Christ in order to bring out views usually overlooked by previous films. Scorsese’s particular focus on Christ’s humanity isn’t the “whole picture,” just as Matthew’s particular Gospel isn’t either.
It is difficult to imagine a film that would simultaneously portray both the human and divine natures of Christ in a compelling way. A “definitive” Christ film seems to be impossible.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew is #182 on the 2012 edition of the TSPDT 1,000 list I’m blogging through. I’ve now seen 429.