What, in cinematic terms, makes divinity palpable? In a 2016 reappraisal of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Sight & Sound’s Geoff Andrew considered Orson Welles’ infamous dictum that the only things which couldn’t be properly represented on the screen were sex and praying. He writes, “the films which depict divinity, spirituality or religious faith most persuasively are very often those which adhere most closely to a kind of materialistic realism rooted in the physical aspects of existence.” In other words, to use a popular reference, the films which aesthetically choose the sturdy, battered cup find greater resonance over those which opt for the gilded, gem-pocked chalice.
Such a profound depiction of the Passion is Pasolini’s film, his third feature film at the time. In the year of his centenary, there is no better version for us to revisit the Christ myth this coming Easter, but also to dwell on its enduring significance and its representation of what might be referred to as a ‘grounded divinity’. Hardened atheists and devoted followers alike may balk at my attempts at even defining ‘divinity.’ But I suppose what I mean is the notion of something other-worldy that one may occasionally encounter, triggered either by deep introspection, or by individual auras in the external world. You don’t have to believe it, but you can certainly feel it, and art rests as our most effective point of access.
In great works of art, that feeling is invoked precisely when the artist understands the importance of the form to act as a conduit for, what was historically referred to as, divine inspiration. A form which represents the divine, but at no sacrifice to the artist’s voice. The Immaculate Conception, for instance, may be found innumerably across the canvasses of the Old Masters, but each one is an accordance – a version – held individually by the manner in which the painter chose to represent it. So it goes with film. The economy of style, and the individuality of one artist’s portrayal of the sacredness of the metaphysical, is so often what distinguishes the great ones – Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Malick – from the hackneyed.
So, what of Christ? Attending a Christian Brothers school in adolescence, it was wont that the representations of Christ we were treated to on those rainy Fridays in R.E. were primarily of the Hollywood messiah, adorned with glowing meekness or unabashed peplum gait; whether it’s Robert Powell in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977), or Max von Sydow in George Steven’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). We were never shown what Catholics must still consider the ‘dangerous’ one – Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). I’m sure you were thinking of Mel Gibson’s film, but that version has been on shown Irish television more times than Scorsese’s. Because – never forget that ultra-violence and anti-Semitism will always supersede a film in which Christ’s fear, sexuality, faith, and even madness, take centre inquiry.
Discovering The Gospel According to St. Matthew at university was not simply a break from the manner in which this story always seems to be told, but also a potent introduction to the life and work of its director. As with a number of other European auteurs at the time, including his own compatriot Luchino Visconti, Pasolini’s work is influenced by his own personal contradictions; specifically, the conflict between his faith and Marxist leanings, his bourgeois affectation for the ‘authenticity’ of rural people, and his homosexuality within a rigid cultural orthodoxy.
Indeed, the impetus for The Gospel According to St. Matthew came when Pasolini was in a fit of restlessness in Assisi. After being invited by Pope John XXIII (to whom the film is dedicated) to attend a seminar, the filmmaker was stranded in his hotel room while the streets were in parades for the pontiff, leading him to kill time with a copy of the Gospels. Yet, in an on-location interview with Radiotelevisione Italiana in Basilicata, Pasolini admits that his decision to adapt St. Matthew specifically was purely the result of having read it first, and wishing to express and “stay loyal to that first feeling of inspiration.”
Watching The Gospel According to St. Matthew for the first time can be an odd, uncanny experience. With his background as a neo-realist filmmaker, Pasolini adopts the technical affectations of this style, but sets it in flux, like so many of his contemporaries were beginning to do. There is the use of non-professional actors, including the role of Christ himself – intensely played by Enrique Irazoqui, a 19-year old economics student who Pasolini had met in Rome. Shot on cheap black-and-white film stock, Tonino Delli Colli’s camera is often shaky handheld on the wides, or telephoto closeups for individual character emphasis.
The choice of real locations (the towns and surrounding areas of Matera, Barile and Massafra were used for the entirety of the film) lends both the credibility derived from the non-professional actors, but also a mythological edge to the society we see; cities that seem not so much built as they are carved into the rock of their harsh, chasm-perched landscapes. The majority of the screenplay is a direct lift from the original text, leaving so much else to consider and imagine about its visual portrayal of these ancient cities and cultures.
Adding to this neo-realist bent, Enrique Irazoqui later stated, in an interview with Jeannine Guilyard, that some of the residents of Matera (which fronted for Jerusalem in the film) began asking for miracles from the young actor; in his words, ‘they didn’t understand anything because the difference between an actor and that which I was portraying didn’t exist for them.’ But this effect is crucially inherent to each viewer as well, inducing us with the reverence or the skepticism that would grip anyone in the moment of hearing this man speak and perform miracles.
For instance, Christ’s trial before the Sanhedrin is shot handheld within a crowd of distant spectators, flitting nervously behind someone’s head, as if the viewer is too short to see the event properly, and is thus present actively within the scene. While the Sermon on the Mount, one of the film’s most profound sequences in my opinion, is introduced in a series of impressive wides of the large crowd that gathers around Christ. But it concludes with chilling handheld shots from the crowd, observing Christ perched among his brethren, approaching closer to the sacred figure, as if someone had truly obtained footage from the real event. With the sun flaring the lens, we are made to feel witness to something very special (that feeling I mentioned at the beginning).
Although this ‘realist’ approach to the Christ narrative would seem obvious as a modern experiment, the application of neo-realism and cinema verite techniques must have been a phenomenon at the time, chiefly in its cinematic consideration of the son of God as, simply, a human being. Roger Ebert writes, ‘It’s as if a documentarian on a low budget had been following him from birth. The movie was made in the spirit of Italian neo-realism, which believed that ordinary people, not actors, could best embody characters — not every character, but the one they were born to play.’ On the other hand, the style alters accordingly when Pasolini seems to be angling for something less grounded. This is overt when a closeup is achieved using a wide-lens from a lower angle, effecting a kind of ‘hero shot’, and lit like a Caravaggio painting. Interestingly, this is only ever afforded to Jesus himself, Mary (the film’s opening shot), and later Judas. (This vacillation between technical ‘authenticity’ and stylistic rigour is an element of his approach which Pasolini further develops with 1968’s Theorem.)
Complementing this style is Irazoqui’s appearance and portrayal of Christ. Pasolini’s Christ is visually unremarkable: a handsome, scruffy (but not fully-bearded) young man. The combination of this slight figure with the sparse, erratic camera-style, produces the initial effect of an anachronistic, European cosmopolitan – strikingly modern and certainly out of place with those around him. But that’s precisely the point. Transcendence is attained through the legacy of one’s language rather than their immediate aura, the director seems to say. Despite the flattening effect of Pasolini’s medium closeups, this isn’t Robert Powell’s empty-blue gaze of meekness. No – Irazoqui’s black, determined eyes are staring right at the camera; at the horror of the tyranny under which his people live; at the piety of those that permit evil to reign across the land. There is a rage to this saviour, harking towards the Old Testament, in which the divine was exceedingly characterised by might.
Appropriately so, since Matthew’s account of the Messiah is distinct for its portrayal of a man as focused on regime change, as spiritual transformation, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Pasolini vouchsafes a Christ who possesses an infectious intent, direct in every stride across the desert sands, interpolating holiness not with submission, but with vigour. With only occasional gentleness towards his followers, Irazoqui is aggressive in his speech, tersed with ambition. Yet, often tempered by that same assuredness that informed Michelangelo’s stoic portrayal of David. In that sense, this confident portrayal is not simply original to everything that came before and after, but also generates an exhilarating effect within us as we watch along.
Ebert adds, “Pasolini’s film would argue: Jesus was a radical whose teachings, if taken seriously, would contradict the values of most human societies ever since.” Indeed, in the final scene, Christ’s voiceover proclaims, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” as his apostles run towards his resurrected figure, carrying a young infant and scythes in their hands. In direct counterpoint to the glory of the scene and the re-introduction of the theme from Missa Luba, the ominous symbolism is inescapable for what is to follow across the centuries.
In the Criterion Collection notes for The Last Temptation of Christ, Bruce Bennett opines that not even Pasolini’s iteration could reach the introspective heights that Scorsese brought to his character study. But ultimately, this was never Pasolini’s directive. A poet and novelist in trade, Pasolini always took the literary approach; always more interested in the abstract layers beneath our most cherished stories, he was driven by the ideas of religious myth and their materialist underpinnings, yet arguably never at the sacrifice of a consistent cinematic aesthetic. Moreover, what the Vatican later praised as the most accomplished depiction of Christ is, upon greater and greater reflection, an indubitable critique of its own subject; a version of the Christ, according to Pasolini. That old joke that Jesus was the first socialist, in this case, must be something of a revelation to Pasolini.
Given the typical furore afforded to other biblical adaptations in the cinema, and with Pasolini’s own penchant for provocation throughout his career, The Gospel According to St. Matthew was actually somewhat a modest critical curiosity upon its release. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, but polarised political critics, left and right of the spectrum. Over time, the film has become one of Pasolini’s most revered works, but also highly regarded within the Vatican itself, not least because of it close relationship to the text and its use of music, achieving a supremely unified sense of Pasolini’s reflections upon the cross-cultural endurance of this story.
Speaking of, Pasolini’s most overt break from neo-realism and the norms of the biblical film is his use of public domain music – devotional music from multiple cultural sources, arranged and compiled by Luis Bacalov. So whereas we do hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and accompanying classical pieces from Mozart, Webern and Prokofiev (the latter’s soundtrack to Alexander Nevsky is predominantly used as a chilling mood accompaniment during the Massacre of the Innocents sequence), Pasolini pushes it further.
It has been suggested that the closest possible reverence towards the Christ myth by a Marxist materialist like Pasolini rests within the perspective that this story has inspired countless works of devotional art across the globe. Therefore, Christ’s glory is often signposted by the above-mentioned Missa Luba, a Latin Mass sung traditionally in the Congo. Meanwhile, the arrival of the Magi and subsequent scenes are scored by Odetta’s rendition of ‘Motherless Child,’ a gospel-folk source that is not simply refreshing in its eclectic use, but also affirmative of the power of our continued fascination and faith in this story.
It is also through the music that I would argue that Pasolini suggests Judas Iscariot as the story’s most three-dimensional character. A man reviled endlessly across time, yet imbued with the flaws that each of us possess – the flaws that reside long after Christ’s alleged sacrifice. Played by Otello Sestilli, the actor’s features are occasionally comic in their ragged, even villainous contours. But in the scene where Judas casts back his thirty pieces of silver, Pasolini sees him clutching the ground in disgrace and shame, while Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’ plays softly. Though that record may be floating somewhere out in interstellar space, signifying man’s purest expression of loneliness, Judas is in this moment the loneliest man on earth; cast out by all, shamed by his betrayal, fated to rest in disgrace. We hear the editor literally cut the music track, and transition to the scene of his self-hanging – a banal and unjudging series of shots.
To conclude, it’s almost a tautology now to suggest that the roots of our public holidays have either faded, or been transferred towards more consumerist ends. Indeed, it’s not likely one can think about these things while munching on chocolate egg bought for a bargain. But one is not remiss to re-consider the stories that underpin the dates we circle. As is the case with Pasolini’s example, a film can open a window through which we can explore the Passion’s significance, culled from the shackles of religious dogma and moralistic prohibition.
“Blessed is the man who does not lose confidence in me” – my feeling is that that is the primary idea being tested by Pasolini. To him, the representations of this story through art are what persevere. Through his film – a scrappy yet profoundly simple one – Pasolini seeks to define the shaky nature of its sacredness, if not to simply demonstrate its perseverance. Christ is portrayed ready to install a new order, but the truth is that he stands to rid all order. Matthew’s account, at least as it’s depicted here on film, suggests that the inspiration of the Christ myth – that same feeling that Pasolini had reading the first Gospel – is what counts. Maybe not every year, but it is this wordless impulse that keeps us coming back to this story.