Monday, 23 February 2015

The Gospel According to St Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)


I'm trying to practice my limited Italian before going to Rome this summer, so to help me out, Mum and Dad kindly bought me Pasolini's classic 1964 film for my birthday, which I hadn't seen before.

Although I'm familiar with various choral versions of particular Gospels (I seem to remember singing Bach's St John's Passion with the university choir once) most of the Jesus films I'm familiar with (Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, The Passion of the Christ - oh, and The Life of Brian) blend elements from all four Gospels into one. Over the years, I've sometimes rather forgotten which bits belong to which Gospel, so it's really interesting to see just one of them set out here. Even some elements I did remember as being particular to one Gospel were fascinating to see fully separated out. I know that the Nativity story exists only in Matthew and Luke, and that Matthew covers Joseph's dream, Herod and the wise men, while Luke includes Mary, Gabriel, no room at the inn and the shepherds, but after decades of school Nativity plays, it's very strange to actually see only the Matthean parts of it without the Luke bits.

Pasolini does very slightly veer from strict adherence to Matthew at the end, as John is clearly present at the crucifixion, a detail recorded in no uncertain terms by John but not by the others. Jesus' cross is also inscribed with JNRJ, more usually rendered INRI - an abbreviation for 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews' (the Latin Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iud├Žorum), a notice John's Gospel states was written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and put up on Pilate's orders (John 19:19; as far as I can remember, only The Passion of the Christ has actually shown a sign with all three languages on it, partly because it has to be quite large and the writing quite small). Matthew's Gospel mentions the sign, but quotes it as saying 'this is Jesus, King of the Jews' (27:37; Hic est Jesus rex Jud├Žorum in the Vulgate). John, who is depicted as one of the younger disciples in this film, is also shown holding hands with Jesus at one point, presumably reflecting the frequent references to him as 'the disciple Jesus loved' in his own Gospel.

Matthew is an interesting choice for a Marxist director as well. I vaguely remember reading an article which I think was by Ste Croix years ago while I was revising for my final exams about economics, class and the Gospels. Possibly-Ste-Croix argued that Luke's Gospel was aimed at the poor (hence, the shepherds) while Matthew's was aimed at the better-off (the wise men paying homage emulating the elite from the east paying homage to a king or emperor). Luke's Beatitudes say simply 'blessed are the poor', implying that the fact of being poor makes one more worthy than the rich, whereas Matthew's say 'blessed are the poor in spirit', implying you can still be rich and blessed. Having said that, Matthew's Gospel does include the story of the rich man who wants to be perfect and the saying that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (the English subtitles clearly saying 'the eye of a needle' not 'the Eye of the Needle') than a rich man to enter heaven, and Pasolini emphasises the working-class status of Jesus and his disciples through costume and location.

The dialogue is taken directly from the Gospel, with minimal additions if any, so several scenes which are described in the Gospel but feature no dialogue are done without dialogue in the film, expressed largely through facial expressions. Pasolini makes some very interesting choices in casting and direction. Salome, in particular, looks quite different to many other interpretations. Her dance for Herod Antipas is often used as an excuse to have a sexy woman perform an alluring dance, allowing the audience to enjoy the dance at the same time as morally condemning it, just like Roman orgy scenes. Here, though, Salome is a much younger girl, and while her dance is pretty, it's not overtly sexual. Herod's reaction simply makes him look more leering, while Salome is clearly being ordered what to do by her mother Herodias and she herself comes across as more innocent than usual.

Pasolini's film is well known for being made in Italian neo-realist style, though as far as 'realism' more generally goes, I couldn't help comparing it to Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Pasolini uses non-professional actors and films on location, where Zeffirelli used an all-star cast of well-known actors, creating more of a barrier between audience and film as we recognise Ernest Borgnine or Anne Bancroft as themselves. However, where Zeffirelli tried to make a film as historically accurate as possible, Pasolini uses distinctly non-Roman architecture (Zeffirelli used a ninth-century Islamic fortress, but less obviously), non-Roman hairstyles and his Roman soldiers look like they've stepped straight out of a Renaissance painting. Their round helmets are especially egregious. I also had some trouble with the fact he'd cast Mary realistically young in the Nativity scenes, but cast his own mother as the older Mary - a woman far too old at the time of filming to have believably given birth to a 33-year-old at around 12-15 years herself.

Interestingly, Pasolini also depicts some of the more ostentatious miracles left out by Zeffirelli - Jesus walking on water, and the dramatic earthquake that occurs as he dies - as well as depicting the healing of leprosy far more viscerally and physically dramatically than most. (That was a great scene - in the Gospel, Jesus tells the man not to tell anyone, but Matthew tells us he went around telling everyone. In the film, with Jesus in the foreground facing the camera, we see the man run behind him and immediately start exclaiming to everyone around him, waving his arms around frantically). Perhaps, being an atheist who believed none of it anyway, he felt more comfortable with the more obviously extra-natural elements of the story.

The whole film also has a surreal feel to it, partly thanks to the direction, but also thanks to the habit of Italian films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s of post-synching all the dialogue, so no one's lips quite match their speech. (For a long time I thought this was just Fellini being weird, but when I watched Suspiria for a Den of Geek article last week, I discovered it's a quirk of Italian cinema of that period in general). Indeed, several of the main characters are voiced by entirely different actors to those portraying them on screen. It gives everything an eerie, other-wordly sensation. This feeling is further enhanced by the wide variety of music used in the score, including sweeping classical orchestral music, guitar-twanging American blues, Christian music and a joyous theme in a style I didn't recognise.

I enjoyed this film very much. The focus on one specific Gospel makes it slightly different from other Jesus films - yes, the story is still familiar, but it's an interesting way to focus it. Pasolini could perhaps have been slightly less thorough in covering everything in Matthew's Gospel, as the section covering Jesus' various teachings, in which we simply see Jesus declaim various well-known sayings, was a bit like sitting through a slightly dull sermon in church. On the other hand, the actor playing Jesus was distractingly sexy - not that the other actors I've seen play him are unattractive (especially Caviezel, though he's too horribly mutilated for much of his film to distract in that way), but this guy oozed sexiness, and the fact he spent much of the early part of the film staring intently at people and telling them to come with him didn't help. He also had the most wonderful head of slicked-back 1960s Italian (actually, Spanish) hair, which did not entirely go with his very traditional white Jesus-robe.

All in all, I'd thoroughly recommend this to anyone interested in Jesus films, ancient world films or Italian cinema. If you want to watch something in Italian to practice the language, this is definitely my favourite of the films I've tried so far.

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