A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

Sandwiched between two epic versions of the life of Jesus released in the 1960s -- King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965) -- Pasolini's version looks like the most successful today. It is raw and unfiltered through Technicolor and wide-screen processes, unencumbered with movie stars. Its Jesus is not blue-eyed like Jeffrey Hunter or Max von Sydow, but a darkly handsome Spanish economics student named Enrique Irazoqui, who had never acted before. (His voice is dubbed by Enrico Maria Salerno, a professional actor who also dubbed Clint Eastwood's voice in the Italian releases of Sergio Leone's Westerns.) The film takes no liberties with the story as presented in the New Testament Gospel of St. Matthew, following it virtually to the letter. The dialogue in Pasolini's screenplay relies for the most part only on the words actually spoken in the gospel. In fact, those unfamiliar with the narrative presented there may sometimes find the film's story hard to follow. No elaborate sets were constructed: Pasolini filmed on locations in Calabria and Sicily and other parts of southern Italy, enlisting the locals as cast members and extras. Like Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), it is a film of faces, and seldom handsome ones -- with the exception of the delicately beautiful Margherita Caruso, who plays the young Mary. (The older Mary is played by Pasolini's mother, Susanna.) Irazoqui, with his unibrow, looks strikingly like a figure out of a Byzantine mosaic or a Russian icon. The cumulative effect of the film is of having sat through something plausibly much closer to the actual events than the more conventional dramatizations of them like the Hollywood epics. Pasolini was, of course, an unbeliever, a gay Marxist, and the effect of the film is more intellectual than spiritual. The Jesus of the film preaches love, but he can also be harsh and enigmatic, proclaiming that he comes to bring not peace but a sword and, in one of the oddest moments in the gospel, smiting a fig tree for some unspecified offense. There are moments when, by following the biblical narrative so closely, the film falls apart, as in the interpolation of the story of Salome (Paola Tedesco) and John the Baptist (Mario Socrate), and it's clear that, as he later admitted, Pasolini's heart is not in the depiction of such miracles as the loaves and fishes and Jesus's walking on water. The choice of music to accompany scenes is curiously eclectic, ranging from the obvious, Bach and Mozart, to the derivative, a bit of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky score, to the startling, African-American spirituals. But even when Pasolini's film goes awry, it remains a fascinatingly personal response to the source material.

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