Films about the life of Jesus always face the question of the Incarnation: Can one portray a Savior who is both human and divine? Some films make Jesus appear so human that it is difficult to believe that he is the Son of God. Others portray Jesus as so otherworldly that he lacks humanity. In Reel Spirituality, Robert Johnston observes that modern viewers are reluctant to accept a conventional biblical saga, much like the church offered for years in its pageants. "Lacking the basic religious presuppositions that operated prior to World War II," Johnston writes, "the pietistic Jesus epic lacks persuasive force. It becomes little more than an audiovisual aid for the already informed."
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that one of the most critically acclaimed films about the life of Jesus in the past fifty years was made by a religious skeptic. Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to Saint Matthew portrays a very human, even stern and mystical Jesus, as the director accents many of Jesus' "hard sayings" and sharpest moral lessons. But the film has also captured the attention of many Christians, who have found the portrait of Jesus to nourish their faith.
Pasolini's film is not only a story about Jesus, but also an adaptation of Matthew's Gospel. Unlike most films about the life of Christ, the film does not fuse all of the Gospel accounts into one story line, but sticks exclusively to Matthew's text. Furthermore, unlike most biblical films, it does not invent dialogue in order to fill out scenes or sustain the flow of the narrative. Instead, it uses only the words straight out of Matthew's text. As a result, some of the scenes are brisk, even staccato in tone, and there are few transitions between episodes. The effect is to create a collage of scenes, rather than a seamless narrative. Arguably, this reflects the Gospel itself, which gathers together material from many sources and witnesses. The film banks more on juxtapositions and sudden tonal shifts rather than on narrative links. Where most biblical films endeavor to adapt the story of Christ according to the conventions of modern biography or storytelling, Pasolini's film does seem to be a visual presentation of a first-century text.
Since the dialogue in the Gospel is often brief, the director relies frequently on silent images. There are also some scenes where the director seems to delve into some of the scholarly controversies about the Scripture. In his presentation of the Sermon on the Mount, Pasolini assumes the perspective that the Sermon was not a one-time event but a compilation by Matthew of Jesus' sayings over several days in several contexts. We see Christ speaking in different settings—some calm, some stormy—and displaying different moods. That effect makes Christ more enigmatic and acerbic, less the calm and caring philosopher than a wandering mystic and stark prophet. We may miss the kindly, gentle Savior of most Jesus films, but the film does convey something of the raw moral energy and unsettling power of Christ's teaching.
Prior to becoming a filmmaker, Pasolini was a successful poet, essayist and novelist, and his skill with words brought him opportunities to write screenplays and eventually to direct works of his own. Born in Bologna, Italy, he suffered through a troublesome youth, largely stemming from the anger of his drunken, ex-Fascist father and the death of his brother in civil strife. At a young age he became a Communist, and though he would later be expelled from the Party he remained loyal to Communist ideals throughout his life. A religious skeptic, he had a life-long quarrel with the Catholic Church and was drawn to a primitive, pre-civilized vision of spirituality.
There are different stories about why Pasolini chose to make a film based on the life of Jesus. The charge of blasphemy against some of his previous work may have prompted him to demonstrate that he could make a serious film about the Gospel. According to one account, a traffic jam caused by the appearance of the Pope once forced Pasolini to pull off the road and take a room in a hotel, where he spent the night reading Matthew. Perhaps it was respect—or maybe irony—that led him to dedicate the film to that Pope. Some critics have seen the Jewish priests and officials in the film as parodies of the Catholic hierarchy.
Produced in 1963, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew shows some of the lingering influence of the neo-realist school of cinema that had shaped Italian film in the 1940s and 1950s. The neorealist movement turned a stark eye on the conditions of war-torn Italy and the resistance movement of World War II, yet it was distinguished by a sense of hopefulness and a desire to propose solutions to social problems. As the movement developed, there was greater emphasis on portraying local manners and character, especially the rural life of southern Italy. Pasolini makes no pretense of recreating the world of first-century Palestine; his version of the story of Jesus is set in the Italian countryside and it evokes a grass-roots sense of hope. Unlike most films about the life of Jesus, Pasolini's film employs only amateur actors, including his own mother as an aged Virgin Mary, and the film displays sympathies for the lower classes of rural Italy. Clearly he wants his film to have a nonprofessional appearance and he hopes to suggest that Christianity had its greatest vitality among the poor.
In his writings on film theory, Pasolini expresses the view that filmmakers should not transform reality to fit their own narratives or stories, but rather should find the symbolic or the poetic in everyday experience. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew has an austere visual style (sometimes called "cinema verite") that strives to find meaning in what is common and unpretentious. He often uses a hand-held camera, a low-budget technique that reinforces the plebian tone. The trial of Christ and most of the crucifixion are viewed from a distance, as if a member of the crowd or a journalist was trying to take pictures of an odd disturbance from afar. This technique suggests how a first-century eyewitness might have actually seen the events.
The austere visual style blends with an eclectic musical track, filled with the elegance of classical music and the emotion of folk music and American spirituals. All told, that makes for a film that can seem uneven in quality, disjointed, experimental and iconoclastic, even though it can also help us rediscover or re-envision scenes that had become too predictable. Much of the eclecticism can be emotionally charged. When the haunting refrain of the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" provides the musical backdrop to Christ's baptism, we hear not triumph but a portent of Christ's suffering.