Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Film Review By Ben Andrus

Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew
A Review By Ben Andrus
In Pasolini’s masterpiece, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, we encounter Jesus Christ praying in the morning on his knees with his arms lifted, palms open, ready to encounter his Father’s presence. Similarly, early Christian icons depict prayer in the same manner. Though an Atheist and a Marxist, Pier Paolo Pasolini still emerged from a devoutly Roman Catholic culture, and these ancient depictions would be familiar to him.
In this review we will discuss Pasolini’s much beloved film, demonstrate that it is truly a Christian film while also presenting particular problems and inadequacies as a text.
Can a non-Christian artist produce truly Christian art, or must the artist be a believer to transmit the lore of the Faith purely? Certainly there isn’t enough space to adequately discuss this question in this review, but suffice to say that we will approach the topic of The Gospel from the perspective that it is entirely possible for a nonbeliever to create Christian art. Lloyd Baugh, author ofImagining the Divine takes the opportunity to discuss this more thoroughly in his book. He makes three points that are worth repeating here: first the film must be judged on its own merits as a film (does the film accomplish its “mission”), secondly, and apropos our discussion, if The Gospel According to St. Matthew received official sanction by the Roman Catholic Church, then certainly others can produce films of the same caliber. Thirdly, Baugh makes an important point that the question of belief versus non-belief is a complex one. Baugh states, “ The lines of demarcation between belief and non-belief are sometimes very unclear and often include wide areas of grey. Perhaps…the sincere and coherent searching of the agnostic can be a valid position from which to search, to reflect artistically on the Christ-event by creating a Christ figure.” (111-112) Though Pasolini was unequivocal about his Atheism; we must offer the distinction that he was not necessarily anti-Christian (99).
The story of Pasolini’s decision to make The Gospel is a compelling one. Virtually confined to a house in Assisi awaiting preparations for the visit of Pope John XXIII (to whom his film is dedicated) while a guest of Pro Civitate Christiana, a Catholic cultural organization, Pasolini read the Gospel of Matthew straight through like a novel (95). The specific passage of scripture that riveted him was Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” Pasolini’s desire was to depict the gospel strictly from the text, a “realist desire to show what lies hidden,” for often this passage glossed over or ignored. In it Pasolini discovered a Jesus who was a revolutionary (Viano 133).
Photographed in stark black and white, the Jesus of The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is a revolutionary. When a Pharisee chides him for healing on the Sabbath, this Christ replies in single-mindedness “ Is it not lawful to do well on the Sabbath.” He gives the Pharisee a scolding look as he (the Pharisee) was an insolent child.  Of course, the aforementioned scripture, the one that first inspired Pasolini to make the film takes prominence. Jesus walks through a city and prepares his disciples for a mission and for a future of martyrdom. The scene culminates with a swelling musical score. Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to bring peace, but division. The ancient, crumbling city and the rugged hills of southern Italy make up the background.  This film-Jesus is a dynamic energetic figure, less the mystic sage, but ever on the move, and filling the screen space with his intensity. At least one critic has drawn a comparison between the fiery portrayal of Jesus by Enrique Irazoqui and the equally fiery revolutionary Che Guevara (Macnab 62). Truly, Irazoqui is only missing a beret. “Often Pasolini’s camera pictures him from behind, from the point of view of the disciples as they try to keep up with him. Jesus’ words acquire great power because they are spoken as he moves, or as he stops and twists his body to look back at them and us” (Baugh 102). Critic Maurizio Viano conjectures that Pasolini wanted his Jesus to evoke a love/hate relationship with tradition and the Law. “Such a gesture of simultaneous affirmation/negation,” Viano states, “is cleverly emphasized by a recurrent image in Pasolini’s film: Christ’s most often-repeated posture shows him walking decisively ahead, with his back to the camera and his face turned towards it, an image which stresses leadership but also conveys the sense of going ahead while looking back” (141).
Though very intense, this Jesus is not without mercy and compassion and genuine warmth. Jesus smiles happily, obviously full of joy when he is surrounded by the children in the temple. The encounter and healing of the leper—perhaps one of the most poignant, beautiful scenes in the entire film—is compelling. “…There is a marvelous warm exchange of smiles between him and the man.” Jesus also seems to enjoy very much the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and also speaks kindly to his disciples during the Last Supper scene (Baugh 103).
Far from being a complete word for word rendering of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Pasolini’s film is not without its problems. Pasolini completely leaves out the Transfiguration from Matthew 16. Jesus’ mother Mary is also inexplicably present at the Crucifixion whereas in the Gospel she is not. “Here Pasolini is blatantly violating his own rule of absolute faithfulness to Matthew’s text” (101). The disciples, whose presences unfortunately are mostly limited to long camera takes, get short shrift in Pasolini’s film. “The Apostles are not fully developed characters; none of them has a personal story, not even Judas who, as a rule, is the privileged locus of psychological interpretations.” The Pharisees themselves are only shown as virtually faceless, rigid symbols of power (Viano 139).
Though certainly not a Catholic or even a Christian of any stripe, being in fact an Atheist and a dedicated Marxist, Pier Paolo Pasolini dedicated The Gospel According to St. Matthew to Pope John XXIII. Pasolini was convinced that Christianity and Marxism, at there deepest level, were very similar (Baugh 99). Certainly, his film was an attempt to reconcile the two, hence his strong, revolutionary Jesus. Of course if Marxism shows any resemblance to Christianity it is because the religion influenced culture for almost 2,000 years before Marx published his writings. We can affirm that concern for the poor, and speaking truth to power “come with the territory,” when speaking of Christianity. Pasolini’s film, however, remains a beautiful, startling work, both truly representative of the revolutionary figure of Jesus Christ and the revolutionary time it was made.

Works Cited
Baugh, Lloyd. Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ –Figures in Film. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (1997).
Macnab, Geoffrey, Lucy Neville, and Matthew Leyland. “The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Film).” Sight & Sound 12.12 (2002): 62.Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 18 Jan. 2011.
Viano, Maurizio Sanzio. A Certain Realism : Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press (1993).

Ben Andrus is an Orthodox Christian. He is a freelance photographer and is currently studying film in Virginia, USA.

You may watch the entire film on You Tube:

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