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THe Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Director: Paolo Pasolini/Italy/Italian/133 mts
The Gospel According to St. Matthew marks an important shift away from the gritty urban realism of Pasolini's earlier films towards the visionary imagery of his later work. A committed but far from conformist Marxist, Pasolini took a powerful and immediate approach, with no false piety or sentimentality. Employing a cast drawn largely from the peasantry of Southern Italy, where the film was shot, the action has the feel of a mystery play reenacted for the camera. Enrique Irazoqui's Christ is part folk hero, part political agitator, but always pursuing his destiny with unswerving conviction. The disciples make for vivid contrasts in facial expression, while Susanna Pasolini (mother of Jesus) is unforgettable as Mary, distraught at the Crucifixion. The recourse to handheld cameras and zoom sequences is well ahead of its time, while the almost jump-cut editing and diverse soundtrack - including Bach, Mozart and the Missa Luba - enhance the sense of action being experienced as it happens. This is indeed a classic of post-war cinema which has lost none of its urgent humanity.
Though the film is about religion, it is more than a religious film as Pasolini's classic still pleasures and provokes in equal measure. The film is essentially a ‘straight’ retelling of the life of Christ (who is played with fervent intensity by Enrique Irazoqui), which, on its surface, seldom editorializes or strays towards controversy, the film was fully embraced by the religious community to the extent that a colorized version was made to capitalize on the Bible belt buck.
General familiarity of with the text makes this one of Pasolini’s most easily approachable films, as we’re given a Jesus Greatest Hits package which covers everything from Herod’s violent purging of first borns via the loaves and fishes, walking on water and through to Christ’s death by crucifixion. While the passionate sincerity of the delivery initially makes you wonder why Pasolini should change his tack so completely, the anachronistic tics and subtleties of the filmmaking offer room for deeper consideration.
Eclectic, albeit carefully chosen soundtrack selections emphasize the geographic and temporal reach of the material, as Bach’s ‘Mass in B Minor’ segues into Odetta’s wailing blues number, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ and the film even opens with Congolese tribal music. It’s a small but piercing touch, reminding the viewer that we can’t consider the biography of Christ without taking into account the specific time and place in which the events purportedly occurred.
Yet, while he creates a disconnect with the music, the busy, mobile shooting style successfully transplants the emotive precepts of Italian neorealism back to the Biblical era. One thing that connects all of Pasolini’s films is the unflinching way he photographs faces and bodies, finding a tremendous, grotesque beauty in the extras and supporting cast, displaying an almost Christ-like empathy towards all of God’s creations.
The works of directors like Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Bruno Dumont and Terrence Malick (to name a few) raises questions concerning the difference between 'religious' and 'spiritual' cinema. Do these filmmakers produce work that decries the teachings and standards of religion, or are they using the context of theology to examine something more universal and untenable?
A series of "Hundred Favorite Films Forever"
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