[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
The austere credits of The Gospel According to Saint Matthew and a dignified dedication panel “To the Dear, Familiar Memory of Pope John XXIII” are accompanied on the soundtrack by pagan-sounding music; and the first shot in the movie proper—a lingering, static, flatly lit closeup of a barely pubescent Virgin Mary—permits the viewer time to acquire his perceptual bearings and further encourages the mood Pasolini steered us toward during the credits: His straightforward commingling of unprettified earthbound realities, a literal presentation of supernatural occurrences, and the viewer’s complacent expectations about them both, force much of the labor onto our side of the screen—underscoring Pasolini’s insistence on the viewer’s own responsibility to make order of the intensely rapid succession of images and swiftly spoken words that fly by in an acceleratingly paced, just-over-two-hour running time. (An index to the film’s speed and compression: It’s the only foreign film for which I’ve ever wished a dubbed print—so dichotomous was the choice at first viewing between watching and reading the movie—until seeing a loathsomely dubbed version restored me to my senses.)
Celebrating the director’s methodology, when the screen time arrives for it Jesus begins his ministry at a breakneck pace, admonishing some travelers to repent as he hurries past them on the road; Pasolini cuts back to the travelers for a low-comedy but credible Who-is-this-clown? take; and barely another beat has passed before we’re at the Sea of Galilee and Jesus is punning to lure fishermen to follow him. With the barest minimum of footage given to establishing shots or transitions, Pasolini spends the next 90 minutes or so studying miracles and parables and Passion events with the same economical, linear energy that heralded their beginning.