Pasolini’s The Gospel According To Matthew (1964) – Blu-ray review
My final piece on Pasolini this week, to mark two exceptional Blu-ray releases from Masters Of Cinema. See also my introduction to Pasolini, and my review of Accattone. Like its fellow disc, The Gospel According To Matthew Blu-ray benefits from a strong transfer and a solid extras package that pairs up the main feature with Pasolini’s hour-long documentary about choosing the locations for the film.
The Gospel According To Matthew
(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
Subversive in style but disconcertingly spiritual in scope, Pasolini’s non-religious background ensures his rugged docudrama reclaims Christ as a left-wing revolutionary
The life of Christ reinvented as Marxist docudrama by a gay atheist? This shouldn’t work at all. And yet Pier Paolo Pasolini’s stripped-down sermon, utilising the actual text of Matthew’s Gospel, has such command of presence that the Jesus films in its wake (Life Of Brian, The Last Temptation Of Christ, The Passion Of The Christ) all owe it a huge stylistic and tonal debt, especially Gibson’s film, which went so far as to film in the same locations used by Pasolini 40 years earlier.
It’s important to realise how radical this was, given that Italian cinema in the mid-1960s was a production line of swords ‘n’ sandals movies. Yet Pasolini headed the opposite way from the lavish studio facilities at Cinecitta and found extraordinary real-life locations – labyrinthine cities, ruined beachside castles, austere hillsides – with which to refocus the attention on Jesus not as son of God but as revolutionary prophet.
Go on, look at him. Pasolini’s Christ, played by non-professional Enrique Irazoqui, has raven-black hair, eyebrows that join in the middle and a piercing suffer-no-fools stare. He’s a dead ringer for Che Guevara, and Pasolini directs him not as the gentle sage he’s so often portrayed as but a firebrand railing against iniquity and inequality. Crucially, he walks, and walks, the Sermon On The Mount depicted not a set-piece but dozens of jump cuts (day, night, sunny, windy) as Jesus spreads the message as far and wide as possible.
Try to imagine seeing this without knowing nothing of the Bible or Christianity. From the moment Jesus walks along a shore and commands the fishermen to follow him, the on-screen narrative positions him as a charismatic, even fearsome cult leader – and given that Pasolini wasn’t a man of faith, you could almost imagine the director subverting the whole enterprise. But Pasolini does something even more striking. He uses the miracles not as holy extravaganzas (they are shot and edited with casual indifference) but as tools of the revolution. This Jesus heals the lame like Guevara threw bombs, as a means towards capturing people’s attention.
Considering the subject matter, it’s incredibly grounded, made raw and real by Pasolini’s brusque editing, his sinous camerawork and that extraordinary capacity to see the beauty in ugly people. Casting non-professionals was absolutely the right move because this is a film about faces. Pasolini portays a small army of disciples who listen and are changed, not necessarily because they’ve let God enter their lives but the more prosaic reality of an inspirational leader and thinker.
The only concession to the transcendence of cinema comes in its soundtrack, which deploys a range of anachronistic cues to cement the film’s reinvention of spirituality. While the use Bach links things back to Accattone, putting Christ and the earlier film’s pimp on the same plain of existence, it’s the use of African tribal songs that best convey the simplicity and timelessness of its world. Oh, and yes Pasolini uses the same professional actor – Enrico Maria Salerno – who dubbed Clint Eastwood in the original Italian Dollars trilogy to provide the voice of Jesus. Close your eyes, and even if you can’t understand the words, here’s a guy you can’t help but listen to.