Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Starring: Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, Susanna Pasolini
Producer: Alfredo Bini
Running Time: 137 min
BBFC Certificate: U
The second Pasolini Blu-Ray/DVD package to be released by Masters of Cinema after Accattone & Comizi D’Amore is the director’s classic retelling of probably the Bible’s most widely known book The Gospel According to Matthew.
For those of you who have been living under a rock (bad semi-pun intended) for the last couple of thousand years, The Gospel According to Matthew tells the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Pasolini’s film is no different, but skims over the Nativity and other earlier segments, focussing mainly on Jesus’ life as an adult.
This film had a peculiar background. Pasolini was a well-known atheist, homosexual, and Marxist, so for him to approach such material in a country like Italy where Catholicism is the backbone to their entire society is bizarre. What is even more remarkable is that it was filmed by invitation from the Pope himself. With Pasolini’s reputation for making films about controversial and taboo subjects, it’s also surprising how closely it sticks to the subject matter and how ‘un-blasphemous’ (for want of a better phrase) it is.
Now, I’m an atheist, so a film about Jesus’ life was never going to be something I’d be all that interested in watching, but given the odd history of the film and most specifically its director’s background, I had to give it a try when offered the chance to watch a screener. My mother is a devout Christian (Methodist), so I had a church upbringing and can remember the stories from the bible, so it’s not like I’m coming to the material as a total outsider, but these days it was always going to be a hard sell. Surprisingly, I was quite impressed by the film, but I think my closed-minded approach to the subject matter prevented it from having a big impact on me.
What I did like was Pasolini’s minimalistic approach to the subject. Everything from the landscapes, sets, costumes etc. are kept sparse. This helps create an unfussy, simple yet beautiful poetry to it all. The minimal yet impressive use of sound effects mixed with the effectively diverse score add greatly to this too. Taking movements from Bach, including his version of St. Matthew Passion, mixing them with spirituals and a Congolese Mass, the soundtrack is a striking mix of songs and sounds of praise from across the globe.
Visually the film works as Accattone did, in creating beauty from un-polished subjects and locations. Pasolini doesn’t gloss up anything. His setting for the story is made to look like the Middle East would have looked at the time. Towns and villages are dirty and crumbling, their inhabitants displaying the low levels of hygiene inherent at the time. Jesus of course is clean and pure, but most of the rest of the cast share a rough, ‘lived in’ quality. Pasolini still manages to create beauty from this without resorting to over the top camera moves or impressionistic lighting. His depiction of the murder of the first-borns and the crucifixion are powerfully brutal too (despite some of the first-borns clearly looking like dolls). I especially liked the way in which the early parts of Jesus’ persecution leading his death were handled. The camera holds back at a distance, following the action from the point of view of a couple of his disciples. This draws viewers in to view it ‘as it was’, adding to a sense of realism and helps humanise the disciples who previously felt like quite empty vessels.
The dialogue is kept pure and simple too, taking everything directly from the scriptures. Unfortunately, this alienated me from the film quite a bit. I wouldn’t like to use it as a criticism against the film as such, because it’s clearly not aimed at me and I find the technique admirable, but for me the film felt like an epic sermon, especially during the mid-section. Much of the core of the film is Jesus passionately preaching to his followers and doubters. This meant that the film had little overall drama. Of course Pasolini wasn’t interested in manufacturing drama as such to cheapen the experience, but it means the film isn’t an easy watch for someone with little interest in the subject matter. It has an episodic structure due to this too though which kept it moving along and the strength of the techniques used and power of some of the individual scenes meant that I wasn’t necessarily bored by the experience.
So overall it is a film I admired and appreciated, but didn’t enjoy. I left it feeling a little cold, despite the earthy poetry that is well crafted by Pasolini. Those more religiously inclined owe it to themselves to watch it though and as a piece of cinematic history it is fascinating, but it isn’t a film I’m going to rush to see again.
The Gospel According to Matthew is out now on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series. It’s becoming almost boring to say, but the transfer is superb as ever. The picture is clean and clear whilst retaining the grit and grain that will have been apparent on its original release. Audio is strong too.
Features-wise we get an hour long documentary by Pasolini himself, Sopralluoghi in Palestina (a.k.a. Location Hunting in Palestine). This is a great inclusion and shows the lengths the director goes to get a realistic look and feel for his adaptation of the classic bible story.
We also get some newsreel footage from 1963, some outtakes from Sopralluoghi in Palestina and the usual info-packed booklet. I didn’t get hold of a copy of this with my screener, but I’m sure it’s a fantastic read as always.