The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a little-seen 1964 masterpiece by the controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a film that veteran British critic Alexander Walker was not alone in proclaiming “grips the historical and psychological imagination like no other religious film I have ever seen.”
Pasolini was a poet and filmmaker, a Catholic turned atheist and a committed Marxist who got into trouble with both the party and the church. Yet his “St. Matthew” was justly considered to be one of the most spiritual films ever made. It won the grand prize of the International Catholic Film Office (as well as two awards at Venice) and was one of 45 films recommended by the Vatican in 1996 in honor of the centenary of cinema.
In the beginning, as they had to be, were the words. The lines in Pasolini’s spare Italian-language screenplay are all from Matthew, and the director has found ways to make sentiments like “man shall not live by bread alone” and “the poor shall you always have with you” resound with the power of something spoken for the first time.
If the words are traditional, the film’s music is not. Yes, there is Bach, but there is also the forceful African Missa Luba and the blues of Son House. Odetta’s version of “Motherless Child” makes an unexpected appearance, and the music Prokofiev wrote for the German slaughter of babies in Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” fits perfectly behind Herod’s massacre of the innocents.
Even more nontraditional is the bleak setting of Calabria in southern Italy, which Pasolini chose after scouting and rejecting locations in Israel. Stunningly photographed in black and white by Tonino Delli Colli, the parched hill towns and ruined buildings of the area seem to be part of the same universe as ancient Palestine, donkeys and all.
Pasolini’s key decision was to shoot this story in the great Italian tradition of neo-realism, using nonprofessional actors for all the roles and selecting a young Spanish student named Enrique Irazoqui to play his charismatic, active Christ. –ScreenSingapore
Born in Bologna in 1922, Pier Paolo Pasolini left behind a searing legacy that haunts contemporary Italy more than thirty years after his death. More than anyone, Pasolini gazed deeply into Italy’s role in the spread of Fascism and, more controversially, the continuing influence of its ideas in post-war Europe. For him, this was a matter of great personal significance; his father was a soldier in the Fascist Army (he had once protected Mussolini from an assassination attempt) while his brother joined the resistance only to be murdered in an ambush. This personal trauma coincided with a period of intellectual development as Pasolini engaged with Marxist philosophy; especially the works of Antonio Gramsci, the founder of Italy’s Communist Party (PCI). His relationship with the PCI, however, was tense. As a poet and intellectual, Pasolini scrutinized his fellow Communists as critically as he did bourgeois society. His enemies retaliated by targeting his personal life; the first instance… read more
In the same year as Bertolucci’s Revolution, if less iconoclastic as Jarman, Russell - even so, startling an interpretation: neorealist immaculate conception, political sermon - truly, the Gospel according to Pasolini. Dynamic cues, in editing - deflecting the parables’ ethereal vision - and music, from Mozart to Soweto, infusing a worldly, baroque sphere to serve its elegiac end. Indeed, jarringly artistic, as in its episodic, religious adherence to gospel, but thus transcendent across culture, time and setting, now and forevermore. A raw, beatific canticle.
It sounds good, a tawdrily wrought depiction of an ineffectual, unibrowed enfant terrible Christ with a personality disorder. Pasolini would go on to die the year that Rossellini's Messiah aired, proving you can sell your soul to cinema but you can't make it dance without a beat.
On the occasion of new DVDs by Criterion and a MoMA retrospective, a look at Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” and Salò.
Also: Dave Kehr on Mitchell Leisen and Zachary Oberzan’s Your Brother. Remember?