The Gospel According to Matthew ★★★★½

Because the only Pasolini film I had previously seen was the harrowing Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), I began The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1963) with some trepidation. I expected it to be dark, visceral, and transgressive. It turns out to be a refreshingly straightforward adaptation of the book of Matthew, with none of the horrors of Salo, his final film.

That’s not to say that The Gospel According to St. Matthew lacks power. On the contrary, it derives great strength from its simplicity, bringing immediacy and humanity back to the stories of the gospel. To much of its audience, the stories depicted will be so familiar as to make it hard to engage with them objectively as narrative, much less as historical events. It is similarly difficult to understand Christ’s teachings as a practical call to action, rather than mere Western cultural commonplace, part of Church ritual or everyday speech. All of this obscures how revolutionary he was. With his profoundly personal and realistic approach, Pasolini forces the viewer to experience the gospel anew, stripped of the history and traditions that are now irrevocably intertwined with modern conceptions of Christianity. Whatever one thinks actually happened during the period described in the New Testament, or of the path that Christianity subsequently took, it is undeniable that something happened to kick off the Common Era, and this film is an impressive examination of what it might have been like to witness it.

The film achieves this immediacy largely by focusing on individual people, and in much of the film, they are silent, so their response consists wholly in the expressions on their faces. Pasolini shows himself to be a master of close-ups, capturing faces with emotion as intense as any in Dreyer’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) years earlier, and in a manner as distinctive and wholly un-idealized as any of those in Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) a few years later. The faces in The Gospel According to St. Matthew express surprise, concern, doubt, bewilderment, impassivity, anger, confusion, jealousy; in short, the full range of human reactions to an exceptional man with a radical message, and to the extreme events surrounding him. More importantly, this powerful expression is achieved with no histrionics, in part because Pasolini used non-professional actors.

Herein lies the brilliance and subtlety of the film. In recalling the gospel, one could be forgiven for thinking of Christ as an epic hero, a sort of parable like his own parables, and to think of anyone who encountered him as onlookers so overawed by an incarnate deity that they might as well be encountering Aeneas on the battlefield. But the film forces its audience to experience Christ’s message as real people would have, each coping with an extraordinary and unprecedented message in a different way. The focus on individuals reminds the audience that whatever else he has come to represent in the intervening millennia, Jesus was a historical person among people, and regardless of what exactly happened, his words and actions were powerful, courageous, and revolutionary—and are no less so today. It is easy to forget just how radical his message is, and that he delivered it even to the faces of men who had not merely the will and wherewithal to have him tortured and killed, but who actually did this as a direct response to the influence of his teachings.

The film, then, foregrounds the humanity of Christ’s situation: the hope of his message, the jealousy of the authorities, and his own fear of death. One of the most moving scenes in the film is in its interpretation of Matthew 12:46-50:

While he was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

It is easy to read Christ in this passage as the divine ascetic, symbolically rejecting worldly concerns. Pasolini forcefully reminds us of the humanity of this scene by portraying Jesus as making direct eye contact with his mother Mary when he says this. Mary, initially glowing with what appears to be maternal pride for a son she hasn’t seen for years and the respect that he has from the crowd, begins to cry when he renounces his family. Even more surprisingly, we see in Jesus’ eyes the difficulty of this renunciation, and his final statement, far from a proclamation of universal brotherhood, becomes an intensely personal relent from his harsh words towards her, makes his mother smile through her tears.

Lest they distract from his message, the miracles too are downplayed. Apart from the walking on water, the majority of them are done with simple cuts that impose no aggrandizement or effects. It is Jesus’ faith and his message that interests Pasolini, not his works, and leaving the miracles almost entirely between the frames of the film preserves the mystery of what these people actually saw.

In this way it brings the gospel to life, and lets the power of these events shine through in a way they must have done at the time, in a way which is often lost in (the increasingly rare) modern encounters with the gospel. This is one of the humanity’s greatest and most influential narratives, and Pasolini remains faithful enough to it to let all of its original strength shine through.