THE ULTIMATE EASTER FILM: PASOLINI’S THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW

A slightly updated re-post from 2015:

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was an Italian film-maker, writer, and poet.

Part intellectual, part peasant; part Marxist, part broken-hearted Catholic, as a youth, he sold his novels and poetry on the streets of Rome. He knew that power always tends to the right. He was gay without making a campaign out of it.

He was once arrested for lewd public acts, he was a constant target for the tabloid press, and his work became increasingly darker and controversial as he aged (Salò, his last film, is considered by many to be unwatchable).

He was murdered in 1975, brutally beaten and run over multiple times by his own Alfa Romeo in a late-night pick-up gone wrong. 

And he made at least one movie for which alone he should be awarded the crown of stars: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (2 hr. 15 min.,1964).

Barth David Schwartz tells the story of the making of the film in Pasolini Requiem.

Pope John XXIII—to whom the film is dedicated—had called for a new dialogue with non-Catholic artists. In 1962, Pasolini found himself stuck for a weekend conference in Assisi. He picked up a copy of the Gospels, and “read them straight through.”

Instantly, all his other planned projects fell away. “[T]he idea of making a film… alone remained, alive and thriving within me.”

He used no script. Every word in the film comes directly from Matthew’s Gospel.

He used “real people” in his film, including his own mother (with whom he continued to live as an adult) as the older Virgin Mary. People with real emotions, ravaged faces, bad teeth. 

“I have an almost ideological esthetic preference for nonprofessional actors,” Pasolini observed, “who themselves are shreds of reality as is a landscape, a sky, the sun, a donkey passing along the road.”

Enrique Irazoqui , the 19-year-old Spanish economics student who played Christ, had never acted before, and after The Gospel According to St. Matthew, never acted again. Slender, good-looking but not movie-star handsome, Irazoqui has a head of oiled dark hair, swept straight back, and eyebrows that meet.

Watching him, you feel This is exactly what Christ would look like and act like. Intense but not fanatical. Fierce yet tender. On fire but contained. Possessed of absolute integrity but without the desire to retaliate, lord it over, or be vindicated. One of us and yet…of an entirely different realm, and utterly unique.

The film was shot in black-and-white mostly in the poor Italian district of Basilicata. The rocky mountainsides, people wandering in hooded robes, and noisy, dusty marketplaces resemble the pictures from my 1950’s-era childhood Bible. Clearly the budget didn’t allow for special effects but the integrity of the film-making forbids laughter.

The opening scene, where Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant, the baptism, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the night where, praying in the Garden at Gethsemane, Christ sees the torches of the Roman soldiers approaching through the gloom and knows his hour is come, are affecting in a way no other “religious” film in my experience remotely approaches.

As Christ approaches Jerusalem, knowing he’ll soon be crucified, a raucous band of little children tug at his sleeves, crowd in to be hugged, and exuberantly rattle their palm fronds. The camera ranges over their grimy faces, then back to Christ who is gazing upon them with unalloyed delight. It’s the first and only time in the film he full-on smiles.

The score includes Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Odetta’s “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and the Missa Luba, a version of the Latin Mass based on traditional Congolese songs.

In 2014 the Vatican newspaper “L’Osservatore Romano” described “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” as “the best film about Jesus ever made in the history of cinema.”

But it was in reading a letter to his student and friend Tonuti Spagnol, dated October 25, 1946, that I felt a true kinship with Pasolini.

“Something quite powerful happened to me yesterday. While I was standing on one of the Tiber bridges, waiting for friends (it was night), there came to me the idea of descending the staircase which carried one down to water level…It was very dark; I could make out the arches of the bridge over my head and, along the river’s length, could make out lamps, in infinite number of lamps. I was about twenty meters below the level of the city and its din came muffled to me, as from another world. I really never thought that in the heart of a metropolis it was enough to descend a staircase to enter the most absolute solitude.”

In Rome several years ago, I, too, walked alone along the banks of the Tiber. I, too, descended below the city into a profound solitude. I, too, was entranced as night came on, at the “infinite number” of lamps, shining in the darkness.

It’s the same hushed solitude, with the mountains in the distance and the blank sky above, in which the closing scene of The Gospel According to St. Matthew seems to have been shot.

It’s the moment when the stone slab covering the entrance to Christ’s tomb falls aside—and we see that the tomb is empty.  

6 Replies to “THE ULTIMATE EASTER FILM: PASOLINI’S THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW

  1. Beautiful descriptions and analysis, Heather. I will seek out the film. Of Pasolini I have seen only The Canterbury Tales, which I very much enjoyed, and Salo, which I watched while liberally using the fast-forward button to speed past the unsavory bits (which as you pointed out, are manifold)! I have enjoyed reading about your travels and insights. Hope all is well in Tucson as well and that Dory is enjoying watching over you in the bright southwestern sunshine, in the state in which she spent so much time as a younger person. Warmly– Richard

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Greetings, dear Richard, thank you! And rest assured our Dory permeats my living space as she has for years. To have four of her paintings is s treasure…hope you’re well and that your own work and thought continue to thrive!

  2. Last night I watched the film on YouTube. What really hit me were the faces. All those incredible faces, from the beautiful angel and young Mary, to the rough, unshaved men and pensive women. Pasolini’s mother was astonishing.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Yes, the faces, and their expressions as they looked at one another…the young Mary and Joseph after he has his dream and “understands”; St. John the Baptist and Jesus at the River Jordan…

  3. Melanie Poser says: Reply

    Wonderful film!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Yes, Melanie!

I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS!

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