Grade: CGospel According to Mathew, The (1964)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Stars: Franco Citti, Franca Pasut

Release Company: Water Bearer Films

MPAA Rating: NR

Italian Neo-Realism

Pasolini: Gospel According to Mathew


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DVD aficionados are mostly aware of Pier Paolo Pasolini via his controversial Salo, whose original Criterion release is the most valuable collectible on the market, but this is a very narrow view of the famous Italian director. Self-proclaimed Marxist Pasolini moved with his mother to Rome in 1949 after a six year teaching stint, and wrote poems and novels about Roman slum life, gaining a reputation as one of Italy's most important post-war poets. After an initial 1961 film about a pimp from the slums of Rome (Accattone), accusations of blasphemy over his satirical contributions to Laviamoci il Cervello in 1962, and his well-publicized opposition to organized religion, Pasolini hardly seems likely to create a gospel based story of Christ. But that is exactly what he did in The Gospel According to St. Mathew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo), dedicated to Pope John XXIII.

Coming after a decade of colorful ostentatious Biblical epics, Pasolini's simple1964 project was considered daring and radical art house fare, and it won the top prize at the 1964 Venice Film Festival and even received subsequent 1967 Academy Award nominations for art direction, costume design, and musical treatment. Adopting neo-realistic roots, Pasolini shoots the low budget film on location in Italy with a handful of non-professional actors, so the resulting gritty black and white drama comes across starkly in cinema verité style. Had Christ begun His mission in the 1960's on the shores of Italy, documentary footage would have taken the same stylistic approach with generous supplies of intimate close-ups with hand held cameras and long passages of silent footage.

It's the silent portions that are the most striking. In the beginning a man and a woman exchange looks--the woman hopeful but fearful, and the man wordlessly showing disapproval. As the camera tracks backwards from the woman, we see that she is very pregnant, and the conflict and eventual resolution between Joseph and Mary is rendered as expertly as any film, and much better than most. Sadly, Pasolini doesn't maintain the same tension throughout, and resorts to straightforward utterances from the book of Mathew and unevenly dubs music into the soundtrack. Much of the time, the music matches unobtrusively, but inserting African jubilee chanting becomes cliché the third time around and inclusion of Odetta's rendition of “Motherless Child” matches the mood but confounds the intellect with its lyrics.

Also praiseworthy is the fact that Pasolini eschews off-screen narration completely, allowing viewers to piece together the widely known story together without annoying and useless Biblical summaries. On the other hand, the film moves forward very disjointedly because the director insists on “accuracy” by including only dialogue found in the book of Mathew. Biblical scholars will see problems with that since the four gospels stand as a more complete record collectively, but fundamentalists will find little to argue with here. Their main complaints about cinematic versions of Christ have always intensified whenever a film transgressed literal interpretations of the gospel, so it's no surprise that fundamentalists accepted this low budget project.

On the other hand, Pasolini's insistence on remaining faithful to the scripture weakens the artistic impact of the film, rendering it little more than a condensed Passion Play based on the Book of Mathew. After a strong visual start, the film plods into familiar terrain when Christ (Enrique Irazoqui) approaches John the Baptist (Mario Socrate) at the Jordan River. Irazoqui bears a striking resemblance to Mary, and his charismatic presence is a plus, as are the production design and seaside photography. So why does the film play out relatively weakly?

Films focusing on Christ are rarely artistically successful. Bloated affairs like The Greatest Story Ever Told blandly stick to the gospel for accuracy and lose Christ's humanity in the process, so the better Biblical epics (Ben-Hur, The Robe, Quo Vadis) treat Christ as background material and are based on fictional works. The same holds true for this simple low budget film although it's far more visually dazzling than the milk-toast Biblical spectacles from the same period. Had Scorsese not shown the way to render Christ as metaphor effectively with his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' controversial novel, Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Mathew would rank near the top for the life of Jesus genre. But seen with 2003 eyes, Pasolini's work presents only the letter of the gospel and leaves out its spiritual essence--a historically important film, but lacking substance.

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