Monday, 24 March 2008

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964, Italy/France, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

You'd think directing a film about the life of Jesus Christ would be a strange choice for a Marxist and atheist film maker, but Pasolini's treatment of the gospel in question seems so natural. That said, it was surely controversial at the time. His debut feature 'Accattone' had caused a significant degree of scandal, and this was followed by his segment for the 'RoGoPaG' collective film, 'La Ricotta', which was censored, and earned Pasolini a four month suspended prison sentence for blasphemy. However, after the Vatican opened up dialogue with non-Catholic artists, Pasolini embarked on his own unique account of the life of Christ, which offers an interpretation of Jesus as a social revolutionary and political radical, rather than the typical portrayal of him as the divine Son of God. This would later influence Scorsese's own 'The Last Temptation of Christ' and the director has been very keen to cite Pasolini's film as a serious inspiration upon his own directorial career.

Pasolini's modest take on events involves casting non-professionals in all roles. Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish student who wrote a thesis on Pasolini's novel 'Boys of Life' was cast in the central role. Pasolini's own mother appears as the older Mary. Filmed in Matera, Italy, where Mel Gibson would film his own 'Passion of the Christ', locals comprised the other roles. This was typical of his approach to film making as a rule; eschewing big name actors for the more natural acting style of non-professionals. This pays dividends. Irazoqui is wholly convincing as Jesus, offering us a subdued and understated performance. Pasolini is reverential towards the character, but never sensationalises or glorifies him. Even his miracles; healing a disfigured man, healing a lame man, walking on water and so on are presented in reserved and simple fashion. But more important, Pasolini's Jesus is a political animal; driven and humble, but leading his believers towards enlightement and aware of the hypocrisy and machinations of those in power and those who preach.

Also interesting is Pasolini's use of music. Odetta's 'Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child', a traditional folk song identified with slavery features heavily, as does Billie Holiday, which contrasts with the classical soundtrack of Bach and Mozart. Despite seeming somewhat anachronistic, it works and increases the spiritual fervour of the film. That Pasolini films the gospel from the perspective of a non-believer, this makes it more affecting and moving for atheists and agnostics. Pasolini almost removes the entirely religious apparatus entirely, making it a secular and humane account. Other accounts of the life of Jesus are almost certainly going to be overly reverential; this is detached and views from a distance, which is one of the film's great positives. Considered Pasolini's great masterpiece, it's possibly the case because it has an emotional resonance that his other films probably don't possess, which entwines with the political sensibilities of those films. 4.5/5

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