Posted in: by Greg Way, Contributors, Film Reviews

Out of the Past: The Gospel According to Saint Matthew

[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.

During his ministry Jesus frequently leaves a struggling-to-keep-up camera far behind him as he precedes it down the road in a visual equivalent to the foundering viewer’s predicament: With this material, breakneck pacing is not among one’s expectations—nor is the absolute zero time spent in awe or mystic pause. God’s voice at Christ’s baptism, for example, is cut from perfunctorily, like a door closing, as the un–dwelt-upon conclusion to the scene. Cleanly and with a refreshingly good-fun affection for the dynamics of it all, Pasolini’s film hits us with shot after information-crammed shot, in the process leveling natural and supernatural screen events to coequal status.

Introduced to us at his baptism as an askewly framed masculinization of that initial image of Mary’s features, throughout the picture the face of the adult Jesus makes no more than a stumbling effort at resembling the familiar Christ of religious art—and his eyebrows run together, as well. Christ’s genuflected prayer in the wilderness irritatingly interrupts a protracted, euphorically lovely montage of isolation. There’s an urgent, now-for-my-next-trick quality to Christ’s uncompromisingly graphic on screen miracles—curing a grossly deformed man, feeding a multitude who rise at the magical cut as if to deliver the conjurer a standing ovation, walking on water, withering the fig tree—that come to pass through rudimentary, hardly awe-inspiring movie magic. A hurried, closeup montage of Christ’s teachings flies by in comprehension-(let alone reflection-)denying quick shots. And Pasolini’s precipitous locations, compositions and transitions—in company with the narrative’s matter-of-course mysticism—suggest a fragile, transient relationship between the two that parallels the viewer’s overworked efforts to assimilate, impose order upon, and make it all coexist tranquilly in his meaning system.

Environmental and behavioral details—the strangers-in-town, rear-discovered entrance of the wise men; infant Jesus’ view of the children left to die in his place in Bethlehem; a soldier whistling to signal the massacre’s beginning; Joseph’s little-soldier image of young Jesus in Egyptian exile; Salome playing a game of ancient jacks shortly before asking for John the Baptist’s head; the gunfight-style squaring off of opposing forces in the temple; the woman’s Judas-humiliating victory smile during the ointment scene; and all the right but unexpected faces and places attached to familiar Gospel names—jump out with heightened emphasis through effective one-note pacing to compete for credibility and attention with the film’s more supernatural elements, and relentlessly condition us for our own responsibility in the scheme of things.

In its refusal—through speed and leveling—to dwell upon or irresponsibly emphasize events, the film achieves a cinematic approximation of the take-it-or-leave-it nature of Christian commitment—a participatory equivalent to the material’s core question that other Jesus-film makers have curiously not attempted to achieve. When the Messiah rises from the dead and promises to be with us even to the end of the world, Pasolini instantly removes him from the screen and ends the film without so much as a reaction shot. With a mood, method, and understanding that’s absent from other, more insistently polemical Jesus movies, Pasolini indexes the individual onus of responsibility for or against Christian faith, and puts it on our—its proper—side of the screen. Pasolini’s confrontational journey to the question of faith is as mature and uncluttered with irrelevancies as any I’ve yet encountered on film.

Direction: Pier Paolo Pasolini. Cinematography: Tonino delli Colli. Editing: Nino Baragli.
The Players: Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, Susanna Pasolini, Marcello Morante, Mario Socrate, Settimio Di Porto, Otello Sestili, Paola Tedesco

© 1976 Greg Way

A pdf of the original issue can be found here