Holy Week viewing: Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 22, 2016

How is it that a man who was an atheist, a Marxist, and homosexual came to make what is considered by both secular critics and the Vatican to be one of the greatest Jesus movies ever made? It was the fruit of Pope St. John XXIII’s invitation to dialogue with non-Catholic artists.

Inspired by the Holy Father, director Pier Paolo Pasolini attended a seminar at a Franciscan monastery in Assisi. While stuck in his hotel room because of traffic caused by the Pope’s visit, Pasolini read through all four Gospels. He was immediately struck by the idea of making a straight adaptation of one of the Gospels without borrowing material from any of the others. When The Gospel According to St. Matthew was released in 1964, it was "dedicated to the dear, joyous, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII."

In many ways, what makes Pasolini’s film so unusual is how completely straightforward it is. It is set not in ancient Palestine but in southern Italy, but the director chose this setting precisely in order to avoid making, in his words, a “positivist or Marxist reconstruction” which, as a nonbeliever, he felt would be the result if he attempted to depict the true historical events two thousand years ago. Despite his Marxism, Pasolini said, “I did not want to do that, I am not interested in profanations: that is just a fashion I loath, it is petit bourgeois. I want to consecrate things again, because that is possible, I want to re-mythologize them.”

By this he meant that he wanted to make not a story of Christ as he believed it had actually occurred, but a story of Christ informed by two thousand years of Christianity. And so, in attempting to avoid portraying the materialistic version he actually believed in, Pasolini unwittingly made the most historically accurate version possible (at least in narrative terms).

As such, the film takes its dialogue exclusively from the Gospel account. There is no narration, so one must either already know the story or have a sharp eye for visual storytelling to fully understand everything that is going on. Joseph is given no dialogue in the Gospel, so he is given no dialogue in the film—everything between him and Mary is communicated with facial expressions, both his disturbance and her silent trust when he learns she is pregnant, and the joyfully renewed bond between them after the angel reveals God's plan to Joseph. Much of the film is also shot in a cinéma vérité or documentary manner, notably the scenes of Jesus’s trials, which are seen at a distance through the eyes of St. John.

Because of its approach to dialogue, visual storytelling and pacing, the film at times feels akin to a Latin Mass, with its long silent moments that provide ample room for a response of the heart, time simply to watch and reflect.

In the tradition of Italian neorealism, many of the actors are nonprofessionals (though in the case of Jesus, Joseph and John, the voices were dubbed over by professionals). Jesus is played by a 19-year-old economics student, Enrique Irazoqui, who has an unremarkable build, short hair and a unibrow, rather than flowing locks and a muscular physique as in modern portrayals.  This lack of movie-star looks is more in keeping with Isaiah 53:2: “There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him.”

Irazoqui’s Jesus is intense and sometimes inscrutable; we often get a clearer read on the reactions of the people around him. From him there is above all a sense of urgency and eagerness to complete his mission; to borrow a phrase from the Gospel of Luke not spoken in this film, "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This is no soft-spoken, effeminized American Jesus. It is the Jesus the Pharisees want dead.

Both the visual design and the soundtrack are eclectic. The music ranges from Bach to Negro spirituals to the African-influenced Missa Luba. The costuming draws from different periods in the history of Christian art, so that some of the character’s outfits (such as the Pharisees’ hats) are drawn from Renaissance depictions, while others have a more Byzantine or modern look. There are virtually no special effects in the film, and manifestations of the divine are low-key yet effective.

Unfortunately, the Passion sequence seems almost anticlimactic in some ways; Jesus seems to carry his cross barely at all before Simon of Cyrene is told to carry it for him, and we rarely get a close-up of Jesus during the ascent to Calvary (which may be for the best, since he seems to be walking upright and relatively unscathed behind Simon).

On the other hand, much attention is given to the suffering of Mary as she follows her Son, and it could be said that we see the fullness of Jesus’s suffering reflected in the sorrowful and agonized countenance of his Mother (as indeed we do in reality). All in all, though, it is a fairly tame and unbloody affair. (At least this makes it appropriate viewing for children.)

Some secular critics have been eager to read into this film a Marxist take on Jesus, while some Marxists apparently hated it for not being Marxist enough! But nobody who was unaware of the director's personal beliefs would detect any Marxism in the film. Pasolini himself later remarked that The Gospel According to St. Matthew was in fact "a reaction against the conformity of Marxism. The mystery of life and death and of suffering—and particularly of religion...is something that Marxists do not want to consider. But these are and have always been questions of great importance for human beings."

[The Gospel According to St. Matthew is available on Amazon Prime, but there is an upload of equal quality on YouTube. Do not watch the English dubbed version!]

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.