The film is based on the events related in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. It begins with the angel Gabriel telling Joseph about the Immaculate Conception and goes on to recreate the Nativity, the flight into Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents before moving forward to Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, the gathering of the disciples, the Sermon on the Mount, John’s execution by King Herod, Christ’s miracles and entry into Jerusalem, Jesus in the temple, the anointing, the Last Supper, Christ’s arrest, Crucifixion and finally the Resurrection.
One of the most important, controversial and divisive figures in post-war Italian culture, Pier Paolo Pasolini was a filmmaker, poet, painter, novelist, cultural theorist and political activist. An agent provocateur par excellence, Pasolini was a committed Communist who was at one point ejected from the party due to his homosexuality and who sided with the police during the events of 1968. He was an avowed atheist whose films La ricotta (1963) and Teorema (1968) were officially condemned by the Catholic Church and whose final work, Salò (1975), an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, was banned in numerous countries for decades. However, Il vangelo secondo Matteo, his adaptation of Saint Matthew’s Gospel was unironically dedicated to Pope John XXIII and won the OCIC (Catholic Organisation of Cinema and Audiovisual Culture) Award at the Venice film festival. Indeed, it is widely considered to be the greatest film about the life of Jesus ever made, and features on the Vatican’s official list of important movies.
This is perhaps less of a contradiction than it as first seems, for although he was an atheist, Pasolini was a cultural Catholic whose vision of the world, by his own admission, was essentially religious. Furthermore, as Oswald Stack has argued, the two commanding ideologies which dominate Italian intellectual life are Catholicism and Marxism and this film attempts to bring these two seemingly opposing forces together (Stack 1969: 7). Inspired by Pope John XXIII’s opening of the Second Vatican Council, and influenced by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to create national-popular myths that could lead people to political engagement and social reform, Pasolini made his Christ a ‘total revolutionary’ and the key note of his adaptation can be found in Matthew 10:34: ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword’. For Pasolini, Jesus is a messenger who has come to spur on a ‘world of poor people ready for revolution’. To this end, this cinematic incarnation of Christ continually addresses the audience. For example, during the reconstruction of the Sermon on the Mount the disciples are never seen and Christ is framed in close ups and medium shots throughout, looking directly into the camera at the viewer.
Despite having scouted locations in Palestine (a journey recorded in the 1963 short documentary, Sopralluoghi in Palestina), Pasolini finally elected to shoot the entire film in southern Italy. While this decision may partly have been made for budgetary reasons, the areas of Italy he chose where often poor and had changed little since the time of the Romans, which perhaps made them a closer approximation of ancient Israel than modern-day Palestine. However, Pasolini was not overly concerned with historical authenticity, and instead sought to tell the story of the Gospel through subtle analogies with recent history. Therefore, his images of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus were inspired by photographs of Spanish Civil War refugees crossing the border into France on donkeys in 1939, while the uniforms of the Roman soldiers have echoes of those worn by the Italian police.
Pasolini also made it clear that his film is a version of Matthew’s Gospel, not a film about the life of Christ (many such films, from King of Kings to Jesus of Nazareth to The Passion of the Christ combine material from all four Gospels in a way which Pasolini refused to do). His decision to focus his film solely on Matthew’s Gospel was both aesthetic and political. The director found Mark’s Gospel too ‘crude’, John’s too ‘mystical’ and Luke’s too ‘sentimental and bourgeois’. Matthew, on the other hand, he found to be the most poetically written and the most radical. Convinced that he could not emulate the language of the original, Pasolini was careful only to have his characters speak words which came directly from the Gospel (with the exception of a few lines taken from the Book of Isaiah). However, his claim to have simply followed the story without omissions or additions is not strictly true. While adapting the text, he cut and rearranged the material to suit his ideological and aesthetic ends, and ultimately, only around twothirds of the incidents described by Matthew end up in the finished film.
It would be wrong, however, to view the film as merely a visualisation of the one Gospel. Rather, Pasolini also wanted to ‘tell the story of Christ plus two thousand years of Christian tradition, because it took two thousand years to mythologise that biography’ (Stack 1969: 83). As the film is also about 2,000 years of storytelling about the life of Christ, Pasolini’s mise en scène and soundtrack draws from an eclectic array of paintings, films and music.
One of the key sources of inspiration for The Gospel According to St Matthew was Roberto Rossellini’s Francis, God’s Jester (1950). This neo-realist depiction of the life of St. Francis, in which the Saint and his followers are played by genuine Franciscan monks, deliberately eschewed the spectacle, special effects and piety that characterised most previous biblical films. Like Rossellini, Pasolini shoots his film in a near documentary style, and avoids elaborate depictions of Christ’s miracles. He also utilised non-actors in all roles. At first, in keeping with Pasolini’s view of Christ as a revolutionary figure, he considered casting Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet, or the American Beat writer, Jack Kerouac. In the end, however, he cast a Spanish student, Enrique Irazoqui, as his central character. Judas was played by a Roman lorry driver, while the part of the older Virgin Mary went to the director’s own mother. This casting of unknowns similarly went against the Hollywood trend for using a roster of stars in biblical epics, such as the appearance of John Wayne as a Roman Centurion with only a single line of dialogue in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
The British filmmaker, Derek Jarman, who was a great admirer of Pasolini, frequently compared his Italian forebear to Caravaggio, the great Italian painter who frequently paid prostitutes and petty criminals to pose for his religious canvases. Pasolini reversed the trend by making films about prostitutes and petty criminals and filming them in a reverential way, as he did in works such as Accattone (1961), in which he went as far as to liken his sub-proletarian protagonist to an angel by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In addition, he underscores Accattone’s mundane and unsavoury activities with a chorus from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. However, when filming his life of Christ, Pasolini concluded that this reverential style was simply a case of gilding the lily, and he rethought his shooting strategy. He began employing frequent zooms, handheld shots, and some techniques that went against conventional film grammar. He frequently contravenes the 180 degree rule and keeps ‘mistakes’ in the final cut, such as obvious focus pulls and pans that do not initially hit their mark. On the one hand, the inclusion of these elements adds to the film’s documentary quality and makes the film seem as if it was comprised of found footage. At the same time, however, these techniques call attention to themselves and make the viewer constantly aware that they are watching a film. The Gospel According to St Matthew is therefore the most overtly realistic film about the life of Christ, but also the most modernist.
The use of music has attracted particular attention. Rather than commission a new score, Pasolini compiled an eclectic soundtrack. Perhaps least surprisingly, he made use of several excerpts from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, as well as the composer’s Mass in B Minor. In addition to Bach, he also uses snippets from Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet and Masonic Funeral Music, while the Slaughter of the Innocents plays out to part of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata. More unusually, he repeatedly used the Gloria from the Missa Luba, a Congolese version of the Latin Mass (the Sanctus from the same piece features prominently in Lindsay Anderson’s If…) and Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting slide-guitar driven ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold was the Ground’ accompanies Christ’s trial and the walk up to Calvary. However, the most surprising choice was Pasolini’s use of a recording of the Blues singer, Odetta, performing ‘Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child’ during the Nativity. While some have found the inclusion of more contemporary music jarring and anachronistic, many more have found it highly effective and often very moving. Moreover, despite the seemingly different idioms, almost all the music in the film is of a sacred or religious nature, and the use of works from three different continents helps emphasise the universality of Christ’s story.
In the 1940s Pasolini studied under the noted Italian art historian Roberto Longhi, and his interest in painting is apparent in all of his films; The Gospel According to St. Matthew is no exception. As with the music, Pasolini draws from a wide frame of reference which spans six centuries of representations of Christ. For example, the unusual woven hats worn by the Pharisees and Sadducees were in fact modelled on those in Piero della Francesca’s Exaltation of the Cross (1466), while the first appearance of the pregnant virgin in the film recalls the same artist’s Madonna del Parto (1460). Pasolini also seems to have cast his leading actor based on his physical resemblance to Christ as depicted by both El Greco (1541–1615) and the French painter Georges Rouault (1871–1958).
Ironically, many of the same Italian locations used in Pasolini’s film where also used in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a Catholic Jesus film that is radically different from Pasolini’s in tone and ideology (Gibson has spoken out against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council which were such an inspiration to Pasolini). Rather, the true successor to The Gospel According to St Matthew is Denys Arcand’s 1989 film Jesus of Montreal, which updates the story to contemporary Canada. Arcand’s film is also the work of a non-believer with an essentially Christian worldview. It is also derived from a single Gospel (that of Saint Mark), and similarly presents viewers with an angry Christ-figure whose story is used to make political points about advertising, materialism and decadence in contemporary society.
Finally, although he was keen to stress that his film was the work of an atheist, Pasolini was also adamant that The Gospel According to St Matthew was not intended to deconsecrate the story of Christ. He noted that this was a fashion he hated. Rather Pasolini claimed to want to ‘re-consecrate things as much as possible … to re-mythicize them’. It is perhaps Pasolini’s ability to combine this sense of the sacred with a distinct lack of piety and a clear political purpose that makes The Gospel According to St Matthew the most important and lasting of all the Jesus films.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Italy. Production Company: Arco Films and Lux Compagnie Cinematographique de France. Producer: Alfredo Bini. Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini. Screenwriter: Pier Paolo Pasolini. Cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli. Music: Luis Bacalov. Editor: Nino Baragli. Production Design: Luigi Scaccianoce. Costume Designer: Danilo Donati. Cast: Enrique Irazoqui (Christ), Margherita Caruso (Young Mary), Susanna Pasolini (Old Mary), Marcello Morante (Joseph), Mario Socrate (John the Baptist), Otello Sestili (Judas Iscariot), Settimio Di Porto (Peter), Alfonso Gatto (Andrew), Luigi Barbini (James), Giacomo Morante (John).]
Lloyd Baugh, Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ Figures in Film, Kansas City, Sheed and Ward, 1997.
Naomi Greene, Pier Paolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.
Sam Rohdie, The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, London, BFI, 1996.
Oswald Stack, Pasolini on Pasolini: Conversations with Oswald Stack, London, Thames and Hudson, 1969.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.