12.15.2016

Movie Review: The Gospel According to St. Matthew ****

This is part four of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.  Where I try to watch as many movies (theatrical releases only) about Jesus as possible, plus review them, before Christmas hits.

My introduction (along with the list I'm trying to get through) is here.
Part one was Last Days in the Desert
Part two was The Nativity Story
Part three was Jesus Christ Superstar


The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a 1964 Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini who was an atheist, a marxist and openly gay. He is also responsible for directing one of the most grotesque and disturbing films ever made, Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. So it may come as a shock to discover that Pasolini treats the source material for this movie with the utmost respect.

The movie is filmed in black and white in the tradition of Italian neo-realism.  The cast is made up of whoever Paolini could find. None of them were professional actors and it doesn't really matter.  The first scenes convey the uncertainty of Mary's position with Joseph with not a single word much better than the constant dialogue of the Nativity Story. And he uses these moments, often powerfully, to convey how characters felt. He had to since every line of dialogue in the movie can be found in the Gospel of Matthew. While other movies about Jesus try to fill in the narrative in order to explain him or the situation or fill in plot holes with extra scenes or dialogue, Pasolini has added nothing extra.

This doesn't mean that Pasolini has used the entire gospel of Matthew. He has picked and chosen the elements and teachings that suite his Marxist ideology. In my opinion, this has little effect on the integrity of the movie. Other adaptations make far more grievous ideological decisions when deciding how to portray Jesus, which are often immediately noticed. Pasolini's choices are far more subtle and since he adds no dialogue, he's limited to how far he can skew the message.  In fact, it doesn't feel skewed at all, it often feels more like we're watching documentary footage of Jesus himself wandering the countryside.

In one scene, when Jesus is on trial (with Ciaphas I think) the shot of the scene is from a distance amongst onlookers like we're apart of the crowd, trying to peek over shoulders in order to get a glimpse of what is to become of Jesus.

As is probably fairly evident by now, it's the teachings of Jesus that Pasolini is interested in focusing on.  There are only a handful of signs and wonders portrayed (healing of a leper and feeding the 5000 are the only two that come to mind) and the crucifixion itself is toned so far down that it wouldn't be inaccurate to say that the Sermon on the Mount is filmed with more intensity.  These aren't complaints, I think Christianity has for a long time been overly preoccupied with the crucifixion at the expense of understanding what Jesus actually tried to teach.  So many Christians have Keller's view:
While Pasolini takes the opposite approach.  Whichever your inclination on the topic, this is still the most faithful account of any gospel (or Jesus' in general) film that I've ever seen.

4 stars ****


One last thing: The scene where Judas hangs himself in both this movie and Jesus Christ Superstar are so similar that JCSS must lifted it straight from this movie.