If Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide can be taken as a reliable arbiter of American mainstream taste (how else can it be taken--as a polemic?), its backhanded praise of Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew indicates some of what the Italian filmmaker would have faced in preaching to the Hollywood faithful circa 1964. "Ironically," ventures Maltin's book, "[the] director of this masterpiece was a Marxist." And what's the irony, exactly? That a Marxist could make a "masterpiece"? That a Marxist could make a film about the life and times of Jesus Christ? It oughtn't to be the latter. I mean, how else to classify a lumpen-loving Savior who literally turned the tables on temple moneychangers if not as a devout anti-capitalist? ("Only with difficulty will a rich man enter the kingdom of God" is a key line in both the movie and its source.) For his part, Pasolini was given to describing himself as an atheist, which couldn't have helped discourage the Venice Film Festival crowd from throwing spitballs, tomatoes, and raw eggs during Gospel's world-premiere screening. Nevertheless, the maestro's calmly contentious sermon on the mount also managed to win a special jury prize at the fest, as befits a film that worships the dialectic above all else.
A defiantly earthy anti-epic, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (screening in Minneapolis for the first time in years) is a period piece in costume only, placing its rather scruffy, contemporary-looking Christ in the steep southern Italian hills of Calabria. (This would have been a clear signifier of the working class at a time when more fashionable parts of the country were busy living la dolce vita.) Influenced as much by the austere style of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc as by early Italian Renaissance painting, Pasolini composed much of the film using stark close-ups of his nonprofessional actors' blemished faces, unmistakably emphasizing the human element over the divine. No DeMillian miracles here: The debut appearance of the teenage angel of the Lord is made mystical merely through the wonders of film editing. (Now you don't see her; now you do.) The Satan who tempts our Redeemer in the desert appears no more otherworldly than the puffy-faced pederast of Fuller's The Naked Kiss; God the Father's hallowed p.o.v. is represented by a shaky reverse zoom and a one-line voiceover.
Irreverent even in his fidelity to the Gospel's own anti-establishment spirit, Pasolini briefly considered casting Jack Kerouac as Jesus, until he realized that the photo of the beat icon that had caught his eye was 10 or 15 years old. (The director also pondered messiahs played by Allen Ginsberg, Spanish poet Luis Goytisolo, and Muscovite communist Yevgeny Yevtushenko.) In the end, he hired a baby-faced yet curiously smoldering Spanish economics student named Enrique Irazoqui--a young Pasolini fan who'd never acted before, but who earned his keep through the sort of artlessly mesmerizing performance that only an amateur can give. It was essential to Pasolini that his film not appear the least bit elitist. The director's increasing disdain for neorealism, whose conventions he had more or less embraced in his first two features (Accatone and Mamma Roma), stemmed largely from the movement's dogmatic asceticism and, in turn, its failure to connect with the mass audience. Taking his Jesus to the streets, as it were, Pasolini retained neorealism's pseudo-documentary images but cut them to the beat of everything from Bach and Prokofiev to African music and a Negro spiritual. Thus, Gospel suggests a sort of postmodern neorealism rather than the thing itself. (Martin Scorsese would take much the same tack a quarter-century later with The Last Temptation of Christ.)
Such stylistic apostasy naturally upset defenders of the aesthetic faith, although this was hardly the gravest of Gospel's sins. Pasolini, as he'd seemed to hope, truly got it from all sides: Many European Marxists were incensed by the movie's literal depiction of the supernatural. Others of the left found fault with the film for appearing to doubt the value of political action, the hero's resurrection ostensibly failing to offset the fatalistic message of his death (shame on Pasolini for sticking to the book). And Parisian rationalist intellectuals found it hopelessly archaic. (Meanwhile, the timely tenure of Pope John XXIII--a radical reformer to whom the film is dedicated--protected Pasolini at least in part from charges of blasphemy.) In another era, perhaps, the world's feminists might have been heard to complain that the Virgin Mary (played in her later years by the filmmaker's own mother) seems little more than a birthing device in Pasolini's vision. As it was, the criticism was sufficient to encourage the director to defer to the source material, claiming that the movie had most surprised and disturbed those who hadn't read the Gospel--a surprising and disturbing text in its own right.
Indeed, there's a sense in which the greatest shock of Pasolini's Gospel is how faithful it is to Matthew's. As in the Good Book, the movie's Italian peasant Jesus comes not in peace, but with a sword--metaphorically speaking. Naturally, the director claimed to have been most attracted to Christ's revolutionary rhetoric. And so, in a film that draws its dialogue directly from the Bible, he selects those passages that emphasize the Redeemer's harsh activist side--the one heard less often in conventional New Testament adaptations (or, for that matter, in church). Gruffly ordering his disciples to surrender their earthly privilege and separate from their families, and expressing his clear preference for the poor and the meek who shall inherit the earth (while scarcely cracking a smile), this is hardly a Jesus of unconditional love. (Pasolini's strategic use of jump cuts--particularly during the bravura Sermon on the Mount sequence--do little to smooth out the Savior's rough edges.) Of course, even a Christian message as gentle as "Love thy neighbor as thyself" would have had undeniable political resonance in 1964, just two years after the end of France's brutal war with Algeria--not to mention what was happening in Vietnam.
If the essence of the Gospel is the inevitability of human suffering, Pasolini's crucifixion scene follows suit by refusing to let the viewer off the hook. Blatantly unsentimental even in its silent cinema-style shots of Christ's hysterically sobbing mother (who, appropriately, appears even more tortured than the man on the cross), this rather utilitarian denouement isn't so much about the glorious gift of Jesus dying for "our" sins as it is about the stubborn withholding of catharsis. Confrontational to the very end, Pasolini dispenses even more swiftly with the resurrection (no Hollywood magic here, either), leaving the viewer safe only in the knowledge of continued struggle. Such holy frustration calls to mind a critique leveled years ago by Scorsese's own parish priest, who complained of Taxi Driver: "Too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday."