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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
According to Pier Paolo
by Donald Levit

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew illustrates the social concerns of its director/writer, and out of the man’s odd personal admixture of extreme Marxism and religious mysticism, moves us as humanistically spiritual compared to such usual fare as The Greatest Story Ever Told. Not less controversial in death thirty-two years ago than in his life,  Pasolini is the subject and object of a weeklong Lincoln Center “Heretical Epiphanies: The Cinematic Pilgrimages,” ten features and a short, plus two films about him and a live concert/reading based on the director’s own first film.

One of the darlings of Italian intelligentsia as provocateur, novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter and director, Pasolini’s unorthodoxy led to an arrest for the anti-clerical “La Ricotta” contribution (Orson Welles as a director filming the Crucifixion) to a 1962 Hollywood-parody omnibus, RoGoPaG. Convicted but given a suspended sentence, he responded with The Gospel, peopled by avowed Communists among its non-professional cast, yet damned by some in the Party as religious propaganda; dedicated to Pious XIII, winning several Roman Catholic film prizes and screened before Ecumenical Council bishops, yet condemned in Church circles as perverting doctrine towards Communism.

Such divergent, incompatible reactions then can be chalked up to the polemic phenomenon that was its maker, as well as to continual social crises and the instability of the nation’s thirty-six governments in the few decades after Mussolini. Actually, legend has it that this film had gestated for several years since a visit by John XXIII had brought Assisi to a slowdown and the hotel where Pasolini was stuck offered no reading matter other than the New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Showing physical age even in the current 2003 restored print, The Gospel nevertheless holds up exceedingly well, and if Jesus’ (Enrique Irazoqui, his voice dubbed into Italian) later sociopolitical diatribes grow shrill against scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites and the brood of vipers, his dignity remains intact, his mother Mary’s (the director’s mother Susanna as the older Virgin) anguish is still awful to behold, and the human side of the Son of man stays in the forefront.

A result of budget restrictions, haunting simplicity figures in what makes this a benchmark best of erratic Pasolini. Culled from J.S. Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev and Webern -- Bach and Vivaldi had furnished earlier scores -- the music is not overplayed, nor are its two more known usages, a Congolese children’s “Gloria” from Missa Luba and the heavy voice of Odetta on the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The miracles, too, are here -- walking on Galilee waters, curing the halt and lame, multiplying the loaves and fishes -- but neither explained nor exaggerated into the usual spectacular. They merely occur, are here like the dialogue lifted from the account of Matthew “from the believer’s point of view.” Just as the Tempter in the desert is merely an Italian in a long robe who walks up and away, so, too, the rest of the cast members are mainly faces from the land around Matera, Italy -- the scouted Holy Land was too “commercialized”-- with “intellectuals” selected to play the disciples. In line with the filmmaker’s emphasis on “analogy” as opposed to reconstruction, agricultural southern Italy stands in for Judaea, its rocky deserts, hills and towns: Matera as biblical Jerusalem and a village of cavern dwellings for Bethlehem, like the detailed background of a Lorenzetti or a Giotto at the center of a primitive Palestine.

On the fly without rehearsals, only suggesting to actors what parts they were to play and how, with the most general of plans and basic tracking shots but never from a dolly, “I relied on chance, on confusion, and so forth,” shooting the whole with two cameras, from different angles, in multiple short pieces assembled into scenes in the cutting room, “chaotic, complex, disordered.”

Leaving behind the squalid prole slums of his earlier films and novels, not relying on the literary past as he would later (pretentiously, say detractors), Pasolini achieves his unadorned best, a near documentary picture of the life and death of the Christ, spoken in the words of the Apostle. In upside-down basket headgear of office, establishment high priests are sinister, Roman troops bored and cruel in mismatched helmets, Judas Iscariot (Communist truck driver Otello Sestili) a crooked-lipped fragile ego more than a betrayer, unshaved in intermediate close-up. But it is the lumpen, sowers and reapers and shepherds and drovers, the objects of Christ’s ministry, and the beautiful androgynous annunciatory angel of the Lord (Rossana Di Rocco), the maternally smiling pregnant Mary (Margherita Caruso), the wildman John the Baptist (university professor Mario Socrate, a declared Communist), the faithful, and the at times bewildered Apostles, and above all the innocents, “these little ones which believe in me,” whose faces fill the screen with wonder.

While Gethsemane approaches, time grows short, Jesus’ sermon-speeches increase in fervent urgency, his figure now seen against nothing more than lowering sky. That for Pasolini the Messiah was a revolutionary and a poet may be mirrored in the story that, before meeting nineteen-year-old Marxist Spanish student Irazoque (who had written a thesis about a 1955 Pasolini proletarian novel), Catholic Jack Kerouac and Jewish Allen Ginsberg had topped his wish list for the part.

In the end, the choices made worked out. A self-styled director of poetry and not an experimenter or technician, Pasolini benefited as never before or afterwards from the very austerity that underlies the particular and at the same time universal center of The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

(Released by Continental Motion Pictures Corporation; not rated by MPAA.) 

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