As I posted on Ebert’s blog entry, “How I Believe in God” yesterday (go ahead, dig through it. I’m down there, a ways), I consider myself formerly nonreligious – but, at the same time, the story of Jesus has always interested me, from a story-telling standpoint among others. And, since the birth of cinema, various filmmakers from every era have made their own indelible mark on the story, in one way or another. Say what you will, but with a few exceptions, Jesus has had a very, very good track record in cinema – from Samuel Goldwyn to Franco Zeffirelli to Martin Scorsese, and to Mel Gibson most recently. Orson Welles even had his own project in the works, apart from narrating “King of Kings,” casting himself as Jesus – though, I’m not sure how that would’ve worked, since – at the time he’d been working on it, he was as bloated as a fish.
But, one of the most interesting versions is the one directed by Pier Pasolini, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” Filmed on a budget in the Italian city of Matera, it takes a neo-realist approach to the story. Ebert, in his “Great Movies” review, put it this way:
“Pasolini’s is one of the most effective films on a religious theme I have ever seen, perhaps because it was made by a nonbeliever who did not preach, glorify, underline, sentimentalize or romanticize his famous story, but tried his best to simply record it.”
Pasolini was not only a nonbeliever – he was a Marxist, and a homosexual. A triple threat, he was – to say nothing of his previous films, most infamously “Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom.” But, the film follows Matthew page-per-page and to the letter, with very little dialogue apart from that given to Jesus, whose depiction in the film – as Ebert also notes – is unusual, if only because he actually looks as the Gospels describe him. He is unbearded but unshaven, his hair is worn short – as was the ‘fashion of the time’ – and he dresses in plain robes, his face hidden by a hood.
The film – instead of taking a completely mythic approach to the story (which also works incredibly well, as the miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” among others can testify to) and in keeping with it’s neo-realist aesthetic – is very paired down, though I can at least assume that this was also partly due to what he had to work with. Though, not entirely. When Jesus speaks in protest of the Pharisees and the scribes, for example, it is shot in a series of uninterrupted long takes, with only a slow choir in the background to accompany it:
Notice also the armor of the Roman guards, styled not after historicity, but Rennaisance-esque retrospective paintings. Pasolini, in an interview, said of it:
“The style in The Gospel is very varied: it combines the reverential with almost documentary moments, an almost classic severity with moments that are almost Godardian – e.g., the two trials of Christ shot like cinéma vérité…. [I]n the references to painting… there are numerous different sources – Piero della Francesca (in the Pharisees’ clothes), Byzantine painting (Christ’s face like a Rouault), etc… And that goes for the music as well… [which] is a mixture of different styles and techniques.”
The two types of styles are often juxtaposed, throughout the film, to great effect. When comparing this to Gibson’s – I would say ‘masterful,’ but for the protestations I have over his approach in general to the story; still, appreciate it for how it says what it has to say – own film, or for a more personally preferential example, Zeffirelli’s miniseries, and it’s astonishing; the stylistic differences in approach to certain scenes are fascinating – particularly the ‘walking on water’ sequences. They both work (well, except for the accents in Zeffirelli’s. The same could be said of this, but Italian just seems to work better), but for different reasons, and both are prime examples of their respective approaches to the story.
I originally titled this entry “Why We Need Another ‘Gospel According to St. Matthew,” but after a bit of thinking, I changed it to its current title – but, there is one element that this film has in spades that so many others seem to miss, particularly these latter ones: this is Jesus, as a political revolutionary, and a firey public speaker. And, we could certainly do with more of that.
(Addendum – It’s also available in retroactive colorization, if you can stomach those things.)