Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo)
The hallucinatory realism of Pasolini's film creates a deceptive effect of immediacy, of witnessing actual events as they unfold.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, portrait by Italian artist Graziano Origa, pen & pink, 1976
Neo-Realist poet, writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini made his startling film The Gospel According to St Matthew (Italian: Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) in 1964 when he already had a reputation for producing controversial work. A decade later he would make his notorious critique of fascism – Salo or 120 Days of Sodom – banned in many countries for its graphic depictions of sadistic sexual abuse. The Gospel, however, is restrained in its use of violence, despite the
ripe opportunity for gore offered by Jesus's gruesome death, most fully
exploited so far in Mel Gibson's 2004 The
Passion of the Christ.
a radical Marxist throughout his adult life, Pasolini's childhood was steeped
in the Roman Catholic Church and he insisted that his film would not be an
attack on Christianity, but a devotional work that he wanted screened in parish
churches throughout Italy at Easter time – an idea that had the more
conservative priests spluttering into their cappuccinos and reaching for the
hallucinatory realism in this film creates an effect of immediacy, of the
witnessing of actual events as they unfold through documentary-style techniques
like the use of a hand-held camera, which is hauntingly effective when it
records the grief of Christ's mother at the crucifixion - a part played,
incidentally, by Pasolini's own much-adored mother. Iconic scenes are
approached from casual, apparently accidental angles: the nativity scene is
shot from several feet above, looking down on the holy family, and the
interrogation of Jesus is half-obscured by the heads of the onlookers. We, as
the viewer, become implicated as one of the crowd straining to see his
rough, threadbare clothes of the people, the heavy, unwinged, unhaloed angel
Gabriel, and the bleak landscape shot in subdued monochrome are in stark contrast
to the white shining robes and golden light that are staples of the 1950s’
film, then, appears to replay the sixteenth-century Reformation’s project of
stripping religious representations of all their artifice and show, of their
sensuous surfaces, their gold-leaf haloes, their glut of angels, their reveling
in Christ's agony, and returning them to an austere, muted reality. The
Reformists feared that the people had become so dazzled by the beauty, and
beautiful violence, of these images that they had come to fetishize them, to
see them not as representations of God, but as mini-gods to be worshipped in
their own right.
Their solution was to order a spree of destruction, with the
torching and defacing of religious paintings and icons throughout Northern
it is this very immediacy – this ‘realism’ – in Pasolini’s
film that leads to a sensory deception that is also in danger of, ironically,
being a form of fetishization: Pasolini wrote how he was determined to use 'no
screenplay' but only dialogue that is ‘strictly that of St Matthew,’ but this
causes him to border on fetishizing Matthew’s gospel, so that Matthew’s account
of an event displaces the event (Jesus’s life) itself; it submerges it.
risk of this happening – of a text being mistaken for the thing
itself – is ingeniously avoided in the New Testament by the use of
four witness accounts, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, offering
diverging perspectives, so there is a distance between these fragmentary texts
and the thing they describe, which remains beyond them, elusive, something that
the texts can only point towards.
implicit promise offered to the faithful in Corinthians 13 is that this
distance will be dissolved at the time of the apocalypse, but not before.
"Now we see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face." A
classic case of dangling the promise of jam tomorrow, but the intense realism
Pasolini’s film creates, at least in the hallucinatory moment of watching it,
is the fiction for the viewer that the distance between them and Christ has
collapsed: that he is on the cusp of stepping through that darkened glass. It
is an extraordinary sensation.
Gospel According to Saint Matthew (Italian: Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo).
Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Titanus Distribuzione S.p.a, 1964. Running Time: 133