Pier Paolo Pasolini is an interesting dude. Actually that’s underselling it greatly. Pasolini may be the most interesting dude in cinema’s history. And perhaps the most interesting thing this gay, Marxist, atheist artist ever did, was make The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), the definite cinematic account of the life of Jesus.
In terms of construction, the reverence that Pasolini has for the gospel as a piece of literature, makes the film play like a Shakespeare adaptation. There’s a faithfulness to the dialogue that initially jars, but quickly comforts the viewer through its familiarity and artfulness. The film is solemn and artistic, wordlessly creating a weight to moments, emotions and words that you can feel. The film opens on a close-up of the pregnant Mary’s face, centring her and the human, not deified, aspects of the birth of Jesus. The film is sparse in terms of exposition, presumably relying on the general familiarity with the source material. The story progresses almost as a montage of his greatest speeches for a time, effectively and rapidly establishing Jesus’ wisdom. The films builds through these speeches, with the words gaining more power and weight as the narrative goes along. There is an interesting lack of miracles or God in the film, rather casting Jesus in an interesting light. He talks of pitting family members against each other, while the scenes of him throwing down with the orthodoxy are the best of all. The film pulls no punches either in its approach. Both to paint a portrait of Jesus that is perhaps not what is expected, and in presenting the reality of the world as it was. There is an infanticide scene in particular that is very tough going. Overall there is a power to imagery and silence in the film. The wordless power of the crucifixion scene, boosted by the soundtrack, is very powerfully done.
Where you really see the director behind the film shine through, is in the subversive nature of Jesus. This is the Jesus of class struggle. A subversive, passionately geared toward overthrowing ingrained systems of power. An anarchist. Sure that’s inherent in the Jesus of the bible (if not the Jesus of today’s most prominent Christian movements), but Pasolini amplifies that over trite miracles. The focus of this cinematic Jesus (and by extension presumably the director) is blowing up the self-interest of those with unearned religious power. He ‘holds no distinction from man to man’. Again Pasolini emphasising the socialist aspect of Christ. There is a dichotomy to Jesus in that he is both man and more than man. Pasolini shows this through showing the way in which he renounces his family and other actions that appear questionable. As well as his very human grief at the death of John the Baptist. On the other hand is the depth of love he shows to the family he builds, of all those who have faith. A well of love that comes from a spirituality that transcends his biological humanity. Perhaps spiritual is too twee a word for The Gospel According to Matthew. Elemental may be more accurate and more in line with what Pasolini was angling for. This aspect is throughout the film. In the movement of people across landscapes, the acknowledgment of God, the purity of a child (any child), the great expanses of the physical environment and how Jesus occupies and moves through that expanse.
Verdict: This film from 1964 may well be the portrait of Jesus that 2016 needs. The historical figure, a fierce subversive, has long been highjacked by the right for their own devious means. Here is an elemental picture of the radical, delivered by a cinematic radical, lifted straight from the text of the bible. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter