Thursday, April 2, 2015

Watch This: The Gospel According to St. Matthew

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

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

There have been numerous cinematic depictions of the life of Jesus Christ, dating all the way back to the very beginnings of feature-length filmmaking.  The silent French film The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, Our Savior (1905) was one of the earliest dramatizations of the life of Christ, using a series of elaborately-staged tableaux to tell the story of His crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Later Biblical epics from Hollywood such as King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) related the story of Jesus Christ on a grand scale, while Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ (2004), being a cinematic passion play as the title suggests, focused only on the last twelve hours of His life.  However, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) is a singularity among these works, and remains the most dynamic, and arguably the most inspiring, of the bunch.  It may be surprising, then, to learn that the film was conceived and directed by an atheist.

Like King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the acclaimed 1977 television mini-series Jesus of NazarethThe Gospel According to St. Matthew is a life-of-Jesus film, beginning with Mary revealing her pregnancy to Joseph and ending with Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection.  The Gospel According to St. Matthew avoids the grandiose glorification and overly sentimental flourishes that characterize most other Biblical films, yet it maintains a sincere reverence for its subject.

The director, the great Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, chose to follow the tenets of Italian neo-realism, shooting on location in rural Italy and using a cast of non-professionals to portray his characters, including his own mother as the aged Mary.  Most scenes in the film are shot in a documentary-like fashion, lending it a sense of matter-of-factness and authenticity.  This is especially effective in scenes of violence such as the Roman slaughter of the first-born and Jesus's crucifixion, where the acts of violence, though briefer and far less graphic than the detailed, visceral brutality of Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, are nonetheless lent a greater power due to the realist aesthetic and more objective camerawork.  Even Christ's miracles, such as walking on water, are depicted in a very straightforward fashion, without sensationalism or spectacle.

What really sets The Gospel According to St. Matthew apart is its rigorous devotion to the text of the Book of Matthew as the source of the film's words and images.  All dialogue is taken directly from the Bible (Pasolini shot the film without a script, filming the scenes based solely on the Gospel text).  This is especially important considering that much of the film consists simply of Jesus Christ speaking and debating.  The film differentiates itself by placing the focus directly on Christ's teachings, rather than just depicting the events in His life.

As mentioned above, the film's director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was an atheist.  The story goes that he read the Gospels straight through while sitting in a hotel room in Assisi, Italy, and was consumed by a desire to make a film about the life of Christ.  His non-belief is no doubt what led to such an exceptional religious film, allowing him to focus on the source material while maintaining a more dispassionate relationship to it.

Pasolini was also a Marxist, and it is not surprising that one can find a mirror for his political views in Jesus's concern for the poor and the film's depictions of oppressive Roman rule.  Jesus can clearly be seen as a radical or revolutionary, a view supported by the work of numerous historians and theologians.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a unique viewing experience, a fascinating and thought-provoking work of interest to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

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