50 years, 50 films: The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)
In our continuing countdown, we select Pasolini’s eccentric study of the Nazarene.
It’s 1964. Dr Strangelove, Woman in the Dunes, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Hard Day’s Night were all very, very tempting. But we have plumped for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s take on the life and death of Christ.
A less than rigorous reading of the director’s career would identify this deeply peculiar, very moving picture as something of an anomaly. After all, Pasolini — gay, Marxist, atheist — would go on to direct one of the most notoriously unpleasant films of all time: Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. But the same strain of absolute, unflinching honesty runs throughout his career. Salo treats fascism with the brutal disdain that it demands. The Gospel translates the story told in the source text with a similar degree of uncomplicated integrity.
Pope John XXIII is known for many things. But he is rarely credited with inspiring one of the great work in post-realist Italian cinema. Pasolini, who was responding to advances from the Vatican towards non-Catholic artists, actually thanks the pontiff before the opening credits. The film looks and feels like no other filmed biography of the Christ. Working with non-professional actors, Pasolini creates a gritty, muggy atmosphere that — though this may not have been is aim — tears down barriers between Christ and the suspicious secular viewer. The miracles are handled with nonchalance. The characters seem at home in the environment. The camera is amazed by nothing. In no other of Pasolini’s many great films do we see a better example of his gift for photographing faces. John Ford felt that the human face was the very greatest landscape. If so, then Pasolini is the J M W Turner of this particular field.
The film was well received by many Catholic critics (and less well by quite a few Marxists). Nonetheless, you couldn’t really say it argues the Christian case. Gospel is a little too rooted in dust and toil to admit mystical hocus pocus. Still, there is transcendence here — not least that generated by the cleverly chosen music. Even now, the juxtaposition of Bach’s St Matthews Passion and Odetta’s Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child remains impressively jarring.
A little bird tells me the whole think is available on YouTube. But it is really worth forking out for the recent, nicely restored BFI DVD. If you haven’t seen the film you won’t regret the purchase.