The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964): The Gospel of World Revolution
12 April 2012
This has some of the best music ever captured on film, you should know this much going in. When the penitent cripple approaches Jesus for the miracle, the score swoons into a scratchy rendition of slow Delta blues — the great Blind Lemon Johnson. This reflects the whole nature of the enterprise, setting out to rediscover a true Christ: deep feeling of air anticipating redemption in every breath, angelic voices as though cracking free from the sunbaked rock itself.
My test of a good Jesus film — how much it’s likely to interest me — is the handling of temptation in the desert. How do you film the inner landscape of a man being confronted with what in this case would be the end of a life of single-minded determination? How do you choose to portray that?
King of Kings, Hollywood’s big Technicolor gospel until the Stevens version, hallucinated an American dream; a vast neon city hovering in the far desert horizon, promise of riches and comfort. Pasolini simply portrays an encounter between small figures. Even the devil is dwarfed by the ascetic nothingness.
The rest is not quite as subversive as one might anticipate by an atheist filming Jesus; I mean yes, this Jesus is often stern and combative, but is still the son of God and heals the sick. My guess is that Pasolini identified in a basic way with the revolutionary preacher of a new communal life, and cleverly decided to let his attack on systematized religion rest with Christ’s own vehement attacks on the scribes and pharisees.
In the end, peasants rush to listen to the resurrected Jesus with sickle at hand and the image looks like it may have been spliced from an old Soviet film.
It is this voice the only thing that troubles me, let’s say this workers’ song in a story by nature so wholly devoted to a messiah. Among others, Pasolini borrows for the score from Prokofiev’s work for Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein’s paean on the virtue of leadership — of course made to glorify Stalin at the time it was made.
So although one of the best Jesus films I’ve seen, purely stark, ascetic depiction, there is something at odds with this subtext. On one hand question authority, on the other believe and have faith. On one hand, ‘if you won’t believe in me, believe in the works I do’, on the other those works are miraculous and seem to come easy. On one hand ‘say nothing to no one about this’, on the other a gospel about it and being taught as the truth. Why wouldn’t one have faith in someone who can raise the dead? I mean this politically.
I fully recognize this is a limitation in the Christian narrative, and the only way Pasolini could have solved it was by filming simply a revolutionary preacher and no gospel other than the deed of giving love — what Rossellini did in his droll take on St. Francis. Or a more clever way to do it, stress storyteling fabrication via Matthew being present on the scene to record it.
He chose not to, which was perhaps for the better, since at least this film could be made.