Gospel According to St. Matthew, The (1964)

Review #1,086

Director:  Pier Paolo Pasolini
Cast:  Enrique IrazoquiMargherita CarusoSusanna Pasolini
Plot:  The life of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Matthew.  Pasolini shows Christ as a marxist avant-la-lettre and therefore uses half of the text of Matthew.

Genre:  Biography / Drama / History
Awards:  Won OCIC Award and Special Jury Prize (Venice).  Nom. for 3 Oscars - Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Adapted Music.
Runtime:   137min
Rating:  PG

“Many are called, but few are chosen.”

There's something uniquely powerful in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, one of the great filmed stories of Jesus Christ, and possibly the most poetic.  Made only three years after Italian poet-turned-director Pier Paolo Pasolini begun his filmmaking journey with Accattone (1961) and Mama Roma (1962), Gospel has often been regarded as perhaps his greatest achievement, even if in retrospect it sticks out as an anomaly in the director's short, impressive but ultimately provocative body of work. 

Named as one of forty-five ‘great films’ ever made, by the Vatican no less, Gospel is a safe, traditional rendition of the story of Christ.  Pasolini, so often critical of the Church and the State in his other films like The Decameron (1971), imbues a sense of warmth, gentle grace and historicity to the narrative. The screenplay, full of vigour and wisdom, functions as a poem for all ages; it is the hymn of life, but not without its well-documented suffering.

According to Pasolini, he was an unbeliever but had nostalgia for a belief.  His vision is not one of epic grandeur, though his painterly imageries might suggest otherwise.  Instead, Gospel works as a meditation, accompanied by the classical pieces of Beethoven and others, with some additional evocative music adapted by Luis Bacalov.  It is at once a religious experience and a cinematic one. 

For me as a non-believer, I find the film superbly crafted, but more importantly, it feels inclusive and accessible.  The things I have heard about Christ's story – his birth, journey, healing powers, and ultimately his crucifixion and resurrection, are chronicled in Gospel.  There's even an extraordinary scene of Jesus (as played by Spanish economics student Enrique Irazoqui who met Pasolini at a political event) walking on water. 

The balance of poeticism,  and in some sequences, documentary-like realism by Pasolini serves the film's elegant yet immersive style.  Whether Gospel is a faithful depiction of its source, I'm in no position to comment.  But it does appear that Christ is being portrayed as a revolutionary, with a strong cause and a stoic determination to change people's beliefs. 

Through Irazoqui's dramatic, sometimes intense, performance, it is easy for any person (or screen character) to fall into two camps – a believer of a profound man of wisdom, or a skeptic of a false prophet.  Perhaps this divide is still symbolic today.  In any case, Pasolini still sees Christ as a loving man, who has humanity's interests at heart.  Gospel remains faith-affirming, if not life-affirming.  If you love deeply, you sacrifice deeply.

Verdict:  Powerful yet poetic, this is one of the great filmed stories of Jesus Christ.


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