Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film, The Gospel According to Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo in Italian), is a beautiful portrayal of the life of Jesus Christ based entirely on the Gospel of Matthew. It is remarkable that Pasolini made one of the most sensitive and caring interpretations of the Gospels as he was an Italian neo-realist, atheist, and Marxist who ostensibly would not have revered the subject matter. The profane subject of his last film, Salo (1975), or the 120 Days of Sodom, was based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade and Pasolini’s controversial interpretation is still banned in some countries. How could these movies have been made by the same person?
I didn’t want to make an historical reconstruction. I preferred to leave things in their religious state, that is, their mythical state. Epic-mythic.
– Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pasolini had already presented the challenge of filming religious subject matter prior to The Gospel of Matthew in the short film La Ricotta (1962), a comical metafiction that portrays a production of the Passion of Jesus. The character of the director is a thinly veiled version of Pasolini played by Orson Wells. On one level, La Ricotta is a critique of what Pasolini saw as a Catholic privileging of religious appearances over Christ’s central teachings about helping the poor, which would identify with an aspect of his Marxist disposition. He was accused of blasphemy and of holding contempt for the state religion for his depiction of the Passion in La Ricotta and paid a fine instead of going to prison. Pasolini, however, claimed that he did not have contempt for Roman Catholicism, but insisted that he was “an unbeliever who ha[d] a nostalgia for a belief.” This nostalgia for belief is earthy, the world of stomachs and food, in La Ricotta, but it soars into the sublime essence of the spiritual in The Gospel According to Matthew.
Pasolini closely follows the Gospel of Matthew in an unaffected manner, without any overt literary or dramatic embellishments. The dialogue is exclusively Biblical poetry. The effect is sublime and awe-inspiring. The spiritual presence is unexpected from the gritty Italian neo-realistic style which included using non-professional actors. Jesus is played by Enrique Irazoqui, a 19-year-old student from Spain and the older Mary is played by Pasolini’s mother. The rest of the cast is made up of locals who are portrayed in natural landscapes, which has the effect of reverently bringing to life many influences from Christian painting and sculpture. Pasolini said that he was “telling the story through the eyes of a believer”, but it is the presentation of painterly tableaus with an emphasis on the faces of regular folk that creates a sense of awe. These images allow the audience to identify and share with the mystical subject matter in a humble and familiar way. The film presents the essence of the Roman Catholic message without the pomp and ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church, which would have been considered both ostentatious to the neo-realist aesthetic and oppressive from the Marxist disposition.
The movie opens with a modest, pared-down shot of the young Mary’s face as she humbly gazes out on an imaginary audience. There is no dialogue. The camera remains in soft focus on her childlike face which projects a sense of what the audience already knows: she was immaculately conceived, a woman born without the taint of original sin. She is both an innocent child and a painterly aesthetic vision of what a sinless woman who can carry God in her womb would look like. Pasolini’s vision of Mary strives to give life to well-known religious elements, but the audience is invited by way of her innocent and enigmatic look into a wonder world rather than a mere historical representation of the events of the Gospel. The viewer is summoned further into the familiar nativity story as the camera pans down from a close-up of her face in tableau revealing that she is, indeed, pregnant. The force of the Roman Catholic veneration for the Virgin resonates in the image without the traditional embellishments. Pasolini somehow evokes the sublime presence of a magical woman in this simple presentation of a child through his non-judgmental lens which gives space for a sense of awe.
The presence of reverential awe is revealed in a similar manner throughout the movie in the emphasis on the faces of the folk who witness the events of Christ’s life. The camera pans across these “audiences” of all the public scenes, for example: John baptizing a child in the river; Jesus performing the miracle of the loaves of bread; Jesus being judged by the Sanhedrin; or, the Crucifixion. The expressions of the folk seem natural and lack any indication of being traditionally performed for stage or film, yet the feeling they show conveys sensitive and powerful emotion. A sympathetic audience can participate in the unfolding of the story of their faith through a natural depiction of a shared spiritual experience with these “natural” actors. The older Mary at the Crucifixion, in particular, expresses pain and suffering with just the turn of her head. She seems to react like any woman would in response to the death of her son and the down-to-earth representation of the highly revered Virgin Mary in her darkest moment brings the event close to home. She is empathetically present as a mother who has lost her child, yet she embodies the spirit of the greatest Saint.
The sense of wonder is not only formed in painterly tableaus, but action and movement is also occasionally used to create a sense of joyful intoxication that arises from the presence of Jesus Christ. This is palpably displayed when Jesus arrives with Peter and Andrew to call James and John into his community of Apostles. The group arrives as John and James exuberantly run down the beach tending to their fishing nets. Their “Marxist” expression in taking pleasure in work is completely overshadowed by their literally being called to be “fishers of men” by Jesus. The dynamism of their running down the beach is both ecstatic and apocalyptic. The young men are going to immediately leave their occupation that seems to make them so happy to engage in the more spiritually profound pursuit of founding a Christian community. The wonderful feeling of being lost in the experience of running will be forever transferred into their Apostleship when Christ is revealed.
The vitality of movement is also evident in Salome’s dance; however, Pasolini’s Biblical characters are not always traditionally presented. Although the Gospels do not refer to Salome by name, she is often identified as the dancing girl in Matthew 14:3-11. Her representation in the Christian tradition is typically as a dangerous and overtly sexual seductress who callously accepts her mother’s request to execute John the Baptist. Pasolini, however, depicts Salome in a way similar to the Virgin Mary. Rather than a tableau, a child-like Salome performs a very innocent and endearing dance for Herod. She does as her mother bids and requests the head of John the Baptist, but she seems like a guileless child who has been betrayed. Herodias kisses Salome on the cheek before she dances. The kiss seems like a foreshadowing of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. The representation of Salome’s childlike innocence in dance is a touching departure from the tradition that evokes deep feelings for a child who has been betrayed into the sin of murder. While this appeals to Pasolini’s desire to represent abuses of power, it also evokes a powerful sense of compassion for the tragedy of the event.
Miracles are presented in a straightforward, realistic way while also retaining elements of mystery. The miracle of the loaves of bread is depicted by cutting from a shot of empty baskets and trays to one where they are overflowing with bread, leaving no doubt in the spirit of the representation that the abundance of food is the result of a miracle. The scene of Jesus walking on water arises in a similar way. He simply comes into view at the horizon of the shot of the Sea of Galilee and St. Peter, of course, walks toward him and sinks. The miraculous event seems to unfold naturally (as far as miracles go), but the Apostles’ sincere veneration, as opposed to shock, for the mystery of the event is expressed in the emotion on their faces. The Resurrection is the only scene in the film that employs a dramatic element that does not fit in with the neo-realistic style, but it is still somewhat understated. When Jesus’s tomb bursts open there is a short, brilliant flash of light followed by a hard cut to Jesus preaching to his followers. The flash of light seems to be more symbolic than a “natural” function of the Resurrection. The crude realism of this, and all the miracles, has a powerful impact. The audience is already familiar with the gospel which drives the story forward in the aesthetic presentation of neo-realistic images as opposed to an overemphasis on ethereal effects. There is never an attempt to explain or contextualize the miracles for anything other than what they are as presented in the Gospels. This lifelike rendering is extraordinary because Pasolini’s rhetoric, which resides in creating unpretentious depictions of everyday people who are witnesses to “real” miracles, also reveals what appears to be genuine spiritual experiences.
The movie is scored with a broad range of sacred music from different cultures and religions that are powerful expressions of the human need to call out to and reveal the Divine. Johann Sebastian Bach’s religious compositions represent some of the greatest pieces in the Western Canon and Pasolini’s use of Mass in B Minor and St Matthew Passion appeal to the tradition of Catholic sacred music. Although Bach was a Lutheran, he was commissioned to compose Catholic masses. Bach’s traditional classical style is set beside American spiritual music like Odetta’s version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”. Ry Cooder described the latter as “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.” It is a potent testament to Pasolini’s selection to note that this juxtaposition of musical styles serves the sacred, reverential mood of the movie. These disparate pieces revere Jesus Christ in their own powerful way. While the Italian neo-realistic imagery seems in opposition to the ornate and elaborate displays of the Catholic Church, it is the heart-felt music that embraces the peak of its musical tradition that encourages a sense of wonder. The music is not presented as a cue to direct the audience’s sentimental feelings, it strives to affect awe for the revered subject matter and subverts a neo-realistic or materialistic recounting of events.