' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964)

Jesus of Nazareth was not unlike Uncle Tupelo. That might seem an obscure (misguided?) reference, comparing the son of God to a three-person band at the forefront of the so called alternative-country music movement of the early 90’s, but then Jesus was actually fairly obscure in his own era. It was what he preached, who he influenced and the legacy they and others engendered that we all remember. In their own era, Uncle Tupelo were also fairly obscure, but they came to be remembered more for their influence on the genre and their legacy. That legacy does not stretch quite as far as Christ’s, a statement which probably requires the most grandiose recitation of “but that goes without saying” in this blog’s history, but the point to which I’m building prevails – “The Gospel According To St. Matthew” is not necessarily interested in Jesus’s influence over the 2,000 years that followed, but what cultivated that staggering influence.


As an atheist, Pier Paolo Pasolini, ironically, turned out to be the perfect individual to helm a story about Christ. This is not to suggest Pasolini attempts to insert non-Christian ideology into his interpretation of a particular New Testament Gospel, far from it, but that he resisted preachy and point-making affectations. After all, this was 1964, in the midst of Italian Neo-Realism, and so Pasolini brings hardcore verisimilitude to the extravagant drama of the life and death and resurrection of the King of the Jews. Often it comes across in the vein of a documentary, a filmmaker on location in Galilee and Judea at the opportune moment when this man proclaiming the Kingdom of God was on its way turned up to minister.

Consider the angel who appears to Joseph in the earliest passages, advising the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. It is not a hovering, shimmering, harp-playing angel of the front-lawn nativity scenes to which many are accustomed, but a simple woman dressed in white, no different from anyone else, except that she suddenly pops up in Pasolini’s shots as if conjured by the snap of a finger. She says what she’s gotta say and then she’s gone. The heavenly hosts have never been so un-majestic. This goes for all the infamous miracles documented by St. Matthew, such as the walking on the water, a feat recorded by Pasolini’s camera with such pragmatism, it will likely make your jaw drop in the manner of the disciples, and drop further than if it had been ornamented with glossy special effects or a swelling score.

And while Pasolini does utilize classical pieces for a traditional accompanying score, he also serves Odette’s spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” at regular intervals, a bold choice that both underscores the suffering of Jesus and the hope his message would be heard. It also brought home, for me, a fairly clear-cut comparison with Spike Lee’s behemoth of a biopic, “Malcolm X”, at least if you discount the first act. Churches and homes for Christians are often adorned with the stock portraits of Jesus with flowing locks and a peaceful air, a presentation which does not necessarily jibe with his presentation in scripture. He’s not just a prophet, he’s a rabble-rouser, a rebel, a fiery orator on the street, not at all unlike Brother Malcolm, and Enrique Irazoquoi, who had never acted, his hair chopped short, is not at all passive, just aggressive. And just like Lee’s Malcolm X, who turns fatalistic by the end, as if expecting his martyrdom, this Jesus seems to know that the harder he pushes, the more certain his death becomes, a death that will only work to spur his message to greater heights.


That death, nailed to the cross, is much more delicately handled than the incendiary “Passion of the Christ.” That it’s happening appears more than enough to convey what it means, that he is glimpsed afterwards by the believers appears more than enough to do the same. Yet that glimpse is not unlike the angel who appears to Joseph in the early going – a snippet of a shot, lickety split, perhaps leaving open the concept of the resurrection being a spiritual reality as opposed to a reality reality.

The reality of Pasolini is that while he was an atheist, he was also a Marxist, yet he went on record as saying “My film is a reaction against the conformity of Marxism. The mystery of life and death and suffering—and particularly of religion— is something which Marxists do not want to consider.” It’s not just that you have to commend him for venturing so far outside his wheelhouse, but that you have to admire him for not making that statement overt within the film. How could he have? All the dialogue is culled directly from Matthew’s text. Those who rejected the film on its anti-Marxist tone are also rejecting the scripture, which is fine, but those rejections go hand-in-hand.

One of the most telling passages is The Sermon on the Mount. It lasts for a full five minutes, quick-cutting from day to night to day to night, and the camera is pressed in on Christ’s face the entire time. His followers carried on the message and the writers of the gospels helped to spread and amplify it, and centuries passed and the message still moves and now Jesus is an institution, a savior and a Superstar. Once upon a time, however, he was merely an ornery man with a lot to say.

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