Pier Paolo Pasolini was an atheist and a homosexual, but – most importantly – he was also a filmmaker. Narratively, his work often dealt sympathetically with debauchers and lower-class Italian citizens trying to make the best of life, something demonstrated in his 1962 film Mamma Roma which follows a mother who desires to take care of her teenage son by leaving her life of prostitution behind even though it may not be possible. He had a knack for recognizing why people push themselves into such difficult and immoral lifestyles, and his films often made the unheroic and despicable people in society heroes while vilifying the aristocrats and individuals that would generally make for more traditional film protagonists. Identifying and associating himself with social outcasts in real life and within his films was not always a popular choice, in the same way that Jesus’ championing of social outcasts by associating with tax collectors and harlots was reproachful during his ministry. Perhaps that, in a more external sense, is why such an honest depiction of the life of Christ could be made by a non-Christian. Taking on the book of Matthew – the first of the four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible – Pasolini respectfully brings the text to life in his film The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), artfully follows the scripture to an astonishing level of exactitude, and yet manages to make it a true adaptation.
Though it is not exactly clear who physically authored the book of Matthew (from the title alone, it is often believed to be the apostle Matthew’s account of the life of Christ), with it being the Bible, all of the text was God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). The detached language used to tell the story of the Messiah reads more as a strictly historical document with little to no signs of a writer’s voice (compared to, for example, the epistles of Paul). Suggesting that it was, in fact, written by the apostle Matthew could have possibly played a role in Pasolini’s selection of which book of the Gospels to utilize as the source material for his film. Matthew was a tax collector – an outsider because of the level of greed inherent with the job and his proximity to the Roman Empire.
The book of Matthew, in comparison to the other two books of the Gospel that comprise the synoptics (John, the fourth book of the Gospels, is excluded from this sub-category), is the least miraculous of the three. “Basically, Matthew is the most earthly of all the evangelists,” Declared Pasolini (Stack 94). By excluding the manger scene (fantastically documented in the book of Luke) containing the birth of Jesus, Pasolini’s point is proven from the very beginning of the book. Instead, the book of Matthew begins with a lineage leading up to Jesus’ earthly father Joseph. Joseph, for Pasolini, would be the ultimate symbol of humanity as he did not actually partake in the conception of Christ and is really just a witness to something unexplainable – something that Pasolini himself doesn’t believe to have happened. Matthew then skips straight to when Jesus is visited by the Magi from the east. The first of three key scenes in The Gospel According To St. Matthew closely follows the arrival of the Magi: the slaughter of the children. In other films about Jesus, the sound of Bethlehem being raided by King Herod’s men might be heard in the background, but instead Pasolini chooses to show women with babies being knocked over and trampled as children get torn from their arms and hacked to pieces. Though it is only three brief verses in Matthew chapter 2, Pasolini makes the chaotic scene over two minutes long set to the devilish score from Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). A similar moment, and the second key scene in Pasolini’s adaptation, observes Salome as she dances for the approval of King Herod II. This is another area where Pasolini chooses to dwell on the darker and more perverse elements of the book of Matthew, as he focuses on Salome for four minutes of screen time. Upon pleasing Herod II with her dance, Salome demands the beheading of John the Baptist. The scene, as long as it is in the film, is quite brief in the scripture, but it adds to the tension and animosity from the Roman authority towards Jesus and his supporters. Finally, at the conclusion of the book of Matthew (Matthew 28), Jesus meets his remaining eleven disciples and delivers the great commission but does not ascend into Heaven (it’s not written that he doesn’t, the book just happens to end before he does). It is not so much that Pasolini actively tried to depict the Biblical events as Matthew documented it (which he did), but that Matthew’s account of the ministry of Christ was most within Pasolini’s realm of expertise. Christ’s resurrection alone is a miraculous event, and it was probably advantageous to Pasolini that he doesn’t ascend to Heaven at the conclusion of the book as his presence amongst his disciples expresses the continuation of a ministry – as lead by a revolutionary Christ. The pageantry of Christ’s ascension would have defied Pasolini’s vision completely for the film. In The Gospel According To St. Matthew, the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is about the closest to a theatrical religious moment as the camera pulls out from Jesus giving a near bird’s eye view of everyone witnessing the Holy Spirit as it descends upon Jesus like a dove. The theatricality of that moment is in the text, so it is implied that it must be a grandiose moment. In the more grounded selections of Matthew, Pasolini’s decision to use the actual scripture as it was written as the source of dialogue is dramatically strengthened by his understanding of tone and atmosphere as he brings the audience to the reality of Christ’s existence.
|The opening shot from The Gospel According To St. Matthew.|
The Gospel According To St. Matthew is a rare submission in the Biblical film canon as it does not glamorize or romanticize Jesus’ life or suffering – rather, it grounds him in the same way that the book of Matthew does. Yes, Jesus performed miracles and was the son of God, but he was also a man living in a very real world. Pasolini took it upon himself to make Jesus a tangible figure, so he cast a Spanish non-actor named Enrique Irazoqui to portray the son of God – a normal looking man with a unibrow. Similarly, Pasolini chose to shoot the film in his native Italian and physically shoot the film in Italy; a decision that helped keep the budget low as casting would be simplified and the remains of the Roman Empire were within his reach. Concerning Matthew’s account of Christ’s ministry, Pasolini stated, “he is the most revolutionary; he is nearest to the real problems of an historical epoch.” (Stack 95) This revolutionary approach to Christ’s ministry is most strongly characterized in The Gospel According To St. Matthew during the Sermon of the Mount sequence in which Pasolini shows Jesus for three straight chapters (Matthew 5-7) delivering words of wisdom exactly as it is written in the Bible. Each topic, as divided in the scripture, gets its own shot that begins as a medium and then dollies in on Jesus’ face as he speaks to his disciples who are unseen. The effect that the dolly movement has upon Jesus as an entity on screen is tremendous as it gives momentum and power to his words, and makes for what could be a rather lengthy scene a more vignette-like declaration of the principals of living Christ-like. That we never actually see the disciples that he is teaching on screen during the Sermon of The Mount, it is as though he is preaching to the audience – which is radical in its own right as the film is suddenly serving the same function as the Gospel rather than simply depicting or dramatizing the events from the written Word.
|Pasolini setting up a shot.|
Expounding upon the idea that the book of Matthew is “revolutionary”, Pasolini also stated that, “nobody in Italy reads the Gospel, really nobody.” (Stack 79) This is where Pasolini’s interpretation and presentation of the material in the Bible really becomes a point of discussion. Having the dialogue in Italian, the locations set in Italy (not only near the remains of ancient Rome, but within reach of the Vatican), and knowing that the filmmaker is a non-believer all become relevant topics of discussion when dissecting The Gospel According To St. Matthew. Speaking about his approach to the source material, Pasolini candidly stated, “I wanted to do the story of Christ plus two thousand years of Christian translation, because it is two thousand years of Christian history which have mythicized this biography.” (Stack 83) The translation that Pasolini is referring to is reflected in the opening shot of the film – a close up of Mary as she looks somberly forward. Behind her head is an arched stone structure that alludes to the form of a nimbus as she may have been presented in Italian paintings like Cimabue’s “Madonna and Child Enthroned”. Additionally, throughout the film he depicts things as they were interpreted in paintings from the renaissance, specifically the Roman soldier uniforms. Rather than having the Roman soldiers wear the traditional shiny armor and feathered helmets, Pasolini has them clothed in medieval suits of armor with kettle helmets similar to the way that Juan de Flandes would have depicted them in his painting “Crucifixion”. Not only does he tap into art from hundreds of years earlier, but Pasolini also utilizes contemporary music to express the contemporary element of Christ’s ministry. The song “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” (as performed by Odetta Holmes in 1960) is a reoccurring motif throughout the film that makes Jesus more than a figure from two thousand years ago, but a part of the present as well.
Though Pasolini was not a Christian, his attention to detail and respect for the source material is strongly demonstrated in his masterful film The Gospel According To St. Matthew. Using the medium of filmmaking (a synthesis of both written and visual arts), Pasolini was able to portray the ancient Biblical account of Christ’s ministry from the book of Matthew in a way that held true to his own standards and principals as an artist by depicting Christ’s life as he would depict anything else: honestly. Even beyond Pasolini’s realistic approach to the sacred text, he still managed to express his voice as an artist through his interpretation of the book of Matthew in both a visual and dialogue driven manner. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s visual flourishes (or lack of them) and idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker make his adaptation of Matthew a true companion piece to the Gospel as it does not merely dramatize the events in the text, but manages to repurpose the text through filmic language to feel as though it is happening in the moment, which can stir up the Spirit in viewers and encourage in the same way that the Bible does for those who read it.
Stack, Oswald. Pasolini. London: Indiana UP, 1969. Print.