Pasolini’s gospel

by Chris Bertram on September 6, 2003

I watched Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew yesterday. I’d been meaning to watch it after reading Jerry Cohen’s report of the effect it had had on him (see If You’re an Egalitarian How Come You’re So Rich?). I’m not a religious person, but the film did not disappoint. It is an extraordinarily sparse portrayal of the story, shot in black and white against the Italian countryside. The acting can’t account for the power of the film, because, there really isn’t any. The actors are all non-professionals and, mostly, they just stand around and look (there are many closeups on their faces). The camera often shakes, and the production values are crude. But Pasolini succeeds in creating something of great beauty and emotional power.

Some reviews I’ve read stress the social aspects of the film and, perhaps guided by the fact that Pasolini was a communist, emphasise that he portrays Jesus as a campaigner against injustice. The overtly political aspect didn’t strike me as particularly prominent (though it is there, especially in the scenes with the priests). What Pasolini does communicate, very effectively and movingly is the notion that we all belong to a common humanity and that even the most rejected and downtrodden have their moral worth. The Italian setting underlines the fact that the people of the 1st century in Palestine and the Italian peasants of the south, despite being separated by nearly two millennia, lived lives that were very similar: rural poverty, crushingly hard work and exposure to oppression, disease and death. A condition that still grips most of the worlds poor and that we are all only a few generations from (on which subject, see Angela Lambert in today’s Financial Times).

The figure of Jesus is both compellingly charismatic and disturbing, leaving the viewer (or at least this one) very ambivalent. Christ is solitary: he broods and he glares. This seems to me exactly right: Pasolini has to make it believable that so many would abandon all to follow this man and that others would be repelled.

Many scenes in the film call to mind other portrays of the story. So I was moved to think both of Bellini’s Agony in the Garden and of Tintoretto’s Crucifixion from the Scuola San Marco in Venice. Odd that a monochrome film can call to mind such richly textured paintings, but it did.

The music Pasolini chooses intenfies the film’s impact. He uses blues, Bach and Mozart and Webern’s reorchestration of the Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. There’s also a wonderful rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, but I’m not sure who the singer is (the Time Out Film Guide says Billie Holliday, but it didn’t sound like her to me [Update: Odetta is the artist]).

I’ll be watching it again, and soon.



Ted 09.06.03 at 5:22 pm

How is the DVD quality? reviews look negative on that front.


Chris 09.06.03 at 5:27 pm

I watched a PAL DVD in the UK, which was ok.


IAA 11.12.03 at 9:03 pm

I watched Il Vangelo secondo Matteo II and found the depiction of Jesus most fascinating. Pasolini portrayal of Jesus lacked emotional depth, and perhaps that was the intended goal. I felt that it de-romanticized Jesus and made him more realistic.

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