At various points, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Mathew resembles the filmmaking spirits of filmmakers like Bergman and Bresson. It is both artistic and minimalistic. This is the best film I’ve seen about Christ, and its resonance is elevated by the fact that every word of dialogue is from the book of Matthew. Even if you’re not religious, this is a spectacular achievement in creating a visual chronicle of a gospel.
- Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
- Writer: Pier Paolo Pasolini
- Cast: Enrique Irazoqui
Most of us are familiar with the story of Christ. There is not so much a plot here but a series of events with which most of us are aware but few of us have seen in such a straightforward style.
There are times when this film feels like a tone poem and there are other times when it feels like a documentary. There are highly poetic moments when minimalistic sets and non-professional acting effectively convey some of the most commonly known moments in the life of Christ. There is so much simple yet profound beauty to this film, and it makes sense when we consider that director Pier Paolo Pasolini considered himself a poet before a filmmaker. Pasolini seamlessly intercuts moment of a more poetic nature with a more neo-realistic aesthetic. Such minimalism comes off as if certain events in the Bible were being observed as a type of newsreel. The scene in which the first born are ordered to be killed feels especially real, as it achieves a sense of desperation and chaos by using wide shots that underscore the the scale of the horror.
On a technical level, Pasolini makes great use of handheld camerawork, giving certain scenes a noticeable level of intimacy. In one particular sequence of long static shots, Pasolini captures an intimate dialogue between Christ and his disciples, drawing directly from passages in the book of St. Mathew for inspiration while sticking mostly to closeups. A shot of Christ walking on water is equally impressive, providing the film with moments of special effects that also feel effortlessly interwoven into the narrative. Enrique Irazoqui’s acting is perfectly suited for this role, managing to effectively convey the type of presence attributed to Christ. And this is not something any actor could pull off. There is a certain self-assuredness that must exist, and Irazoqui definitely has it. To help recreate these biblical stories focusing on Christ, Pasolini uses locations that feel genuine. I imagine would be hard to replicate today with either CGI or color, even if the same locations were used, as Mel Gibson did when shooting The Passion of the Christ. No offense to Gibson’s film, but this is the best attempt at filming this subject matter.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
In 2004, after more than 30 years as film critic, Ebert’s review credited Pasolini’s film as “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.” This is indeed the best quality about this film, that in so many ways it feels like someone trying to honestly imagine how written events in the bible would have transpired. Ebert’s review does a great job of providing further insight gained from a book written about Pasolini, Pasolini Requiem. What I find perhaps most interesting is that Pasolini was an atheist, a Marxist and a homosexual, and that he made this film essentially as a response to a call from Pope John XXIII to engage in a new dialogue with non-Catholic artists.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GREAT
Do you like Gospel According to St. Mathew? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Rocco and His Brothers
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Mathew this week, he now has 360 under his belt and 4 films left to go.