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Italy, 1964

"You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive." - Matthew 13:14

As audiences, we often take for granted the spectacular pictures we see in films, and we often forget how truly difficult it is to create a fresh, authentic, uncontrived image.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's greatest strength as a filmmaker was his ability to take scenes from canonized literature and transform them into literal images. In "The Gospel According to Matthew," Pasolini depicts the feeding of the masses by showing us two fish and five loaves of bread...they look like a perfectly reasonable, real two fish and five loaves of bread. When Christ walks on water, he looks quite literally like a man walking on water. When the children gather around him, one is picking her nose.

Prior to Pasolini's "Gospel According to Matthew," most cinematic versions of Christ portrayed him as a distant, unearthly, almost inhuman being. This worked fine in the Silent Era, where the Christ of Medieval frescos translated well onto the screen. But with the emergence of sound, these stoic, somber portrayals of Christ seemed more stiff than reverent. By the '60s, even the talented Nicholas Ray ("King of Kings") and George Stevens (who released "The Greatest Story Ever Told" in 1965, co-directed by David Lean and starring the great Max von Sydow) couldn't get beyond this solemn "cardboard Christ." Pasolini changed all that, setting a new precedent for cinematic portrayals of Jesus. Since "The Gospel According to Matthew," filmmakers have opted to humanize, rather than deify, the Messiah.

Pasolini's style was firmly grounded in Italian neorealism, a movement that impacted cinema the way Giotto impacted painting. The neorealists brought real life to the screen, undiluted by melodrama or formula. They used non-actors, people in the street, directing them in realistic, everyday situations. Like Charles Dickens and the 19th century realists, they presented their honest, gritty perspectives as social criticism.

From this tradition came Pasolini, who diverged from the neorealists by choosing subjects not from the streets, but from classical literature. Still, his style was rooted in neorealism, and he preferred to work with non-professional actors. He took a "warts and all" approach to casting, and "The Gospel According to Matthew" is a prime example: the cast looks like a cross between Medieval Italian peasantry and Hebrews straight out of first-century Palestine.

For the role of Christ, Pasolini chose Enrique Irazoqui, a student of economics who had never previously acted, and would only appear in two subsequent films. Nevertheless, Irazoqui inhabits the role with a vitality and ferocity unknown to cinema. He doesn't recite Scripture, but speaks each word as if it's being spoken for the first time. The most powerful sequence in the film is the "sermon montage," in which Irazoqui delivers the bulk of Christ's Matthew sermons - he preaches them, in every sense of the word, like a cross between Vladimir Lenin and a Pentecostal minister.

But the lack of professional actors is only one of many methods Pasolini employed to bring authenticity to his film. Another was his use of Scripture - rather than creating a cinematic hybrid of all four Gospels, Pasolini simply chose Matthew, the most comprehensive yet least complicated. He opted to use only dialogue from Matthew, a choice that was much criticized but which ultimately lends greater validity to the portrayal. It quickly becomes apparent that Pasolini chose Matthew for its dialogue, its scenes, its drama, and not its uniqueness. Nowhere in this film does he express the author's emphasis on Christ's Jewish heritage; if he had chosen Luke, I doubt he would have emphasized Christ's universality; nor would he have emphasized Christ's otherworldliness if John was his text. Pasolini chose Matthew because he wanted only one text, and not because he wanted Matthew's perspective. Despite his reliance on direct quotation, this film reflects Pasolini's perspective, his style and vision.

What is Pasolini's perspective? Much has been made of his homosexuality, which he openly flaunted despite massive public condemnation (Italy was wildly homophobic during Pasolini's lifetime; he was killed in 1975, stabbed in the neck by a homophobic boy with whom he'd flirted). Some critics have viewed Pasolini's Christ as an outsider, someone with whom Pasolini the Homosexual could identify. Others have pointed to the director's left-wing politics. Pasolini was a Marxist, and many viewed "The Gospel According to Matthew" through that lens. It portrays a "Christ of the people," they argue; a working-class Messiah with revolutionary sensibilities.

When I watch the film, I see neither the lonely Messiah nor the pre-Marxist prophet. Pasolini's Christ is simply a man. He speaks like a man, he thinks like a man, he is passionate like a man. He is friendly, and enjoys the company of others - rarely is he isolated. He may be an "outsider" to the Pharisees and Scribes, but so is everyone around him. Nor is his advocacy of the underprivileged and impoverished overemphasized. One of the most compelling scenes shows Christ atop a tall structure, angrily preaching to the crowds, calling them to repentance, not revolution. In another scene, Pasolini emphasizes Christ's declaration that "the poor will always be with you."

Pasolini makes another divergence from his neorealist forebears in the soundtrack, which includes Bach (from his "Matthäus-Passion"), American blues, African tribal music, and (most curiously) Odetta's rendition of "Motherless Child." Surprisingly, the soundtrack only adds to the film's spiritual authenticity. By not confining itself to one style or era, the music invokes afresh the transcendence of Christ across the ages, across cultures. Pasolini shows us Jesus as if we are seeing him for the first time, a man who is utterly and shockingly real; but the music reminds us who and what he is.

"The Gospel According to Matthew" was Pasolini's second major film. It was endorsed by the Vatican and dedicated in memory of Pope John XXIII, who'd recently died. Much like the late John XXIII himself, who usurped notions about the Church and introduced Vatican II, the film usurped Catholic notions about Christ. Pasolini's Jesus remains the most Biblical version (all the dialogue comes straight from Matthew), but also the least traditional. Christ is portrayed as common; he is a peasant, set against a backdrop of poverty and religious hypocrisy.

Politics are a non-issue in "The Gospel According to Matthew." The Romans play little or no role in the film...we see the trial before Pilate very briefly and from a distance, assuming the crowd's perspective. Pasolini focuses on the priests, the Pharisees and Scribes, the religious establishment. They are old, thin, and ugly. They do not wear the traditional adornments of ancient Hebrew clergy - they are shown wearing long robes and tall, awkward hats...not unlike the attire of a Catholic bishop. From the beginning they are seen whispering in the ears of Herod, his successor, and the Romans. They encourage the slaughter of babes in Bethlehem. They are always conspiring, whether against John the Baptist or Jesus himself. Pasolini's message is clear: the religious authority are the villains of the Christ story, and have remained villains ever since.

Pasolini's disdain for the Church and its traditions are apparent even in the title: the film is "The Gospel According to Matthew," not "The Gospel According to Saint Matthew." This is no small detail, but rather a calculated blow against the historic, ecclesiastical interpretation of the Gospel characters - the Catholic church had exalted them, almost deified them. In his film, Pasolini brings all of them, including Christ, back down to earth.


For more on "The Gospel According to Matthew," check out the thoughtful reviews at DVDLaser,,, and