As an avowed Marxist, homosexual, and, frequently, atheist, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini may seem to some a dubious choice to have made one of the most realistic, faithful, and, more than anything else, best films about the life and death of Jesus Christ. But, with The Gospel According to St. Matthew, from 1964, that's exactly what the acclaimed filmmaker, poet, novelist, and theorist did.
This gritty, unpolished depiction of the life of Christ contains many of the narrative hallmarks featured in other film versions of the same topic: the virgin birth, the early miracles, the apostles, Christ's persecution and, ultimately, the crucifixion. No other cinematic depiction of this story looks, sounds, or feels quite like this one though.
Before making this film, Pasolini had directed his first feature, Accattone!, in 1961, followed by Mamma Roma, starring the astonishing and incomparable Anna Magnani, in 1962. He next directed the short segment, "La ricotta," for the 1963 compilation film Ro.Go.Pa.G. "La ricotta" was about a film crew, led by its director (played by Orson Welles), who are making a film about Christ. One of the members takes a position on a cross set up for the crucifixion scene, where, due to all of the food he just ate (including large quantities of cheese - hence the title), he unbeknownst to everyone else dies, from apparent indigestion. This short film, coupled with some of his past writings - much of which was heavily condemnatory of the Catholic church - led to charges of blasphemy and defamation of religion against Pasolini.
Nevertheless, one day Pasolini was preparing to leave Rome. As it so happened, the Pope was in town as well and was also departing. Roads were closed and traffic was at a stand-still. Pasolini wasn't going anywhere, at least not until the Pope made his exit. With nothing else to do to kill time, Pasolini found his hotel room bible. He began reading and was inspired. He found his next film subject - however unlikely. It was, as he would jokingly tell his Christian friends, part of their "delightful and diabolical calculation."
It took much convincing, but eventually Pasolini received the blessing and the assistance of the church. He argued that, aside from being well-versed in Catholicism, as much of Italy at the time certainly was, he also had a profound compassion for marginal figures, those neglected, those on the fringes of society, those, in other words, whom Christ would have embraced. Having spent considerable time in the poor slums of Italy, Pasolini said he saw scavengers and hustlers literally as "fourteen-year old Christs." He also understood, due to his political, sexual, and ideological inclinations, what it was like to face persecution. It's little wonder then that his Christ would be strongly shown as a revolutionary figure. He was, as Pasolini saw him, "an intellectual in a world of the poor, available for revolution." There was also the issue of maternal relations. The Mary and Christ relationship is obviously well-known, but Pasolini too had a notable bond with his mother, and she would always play a crucial role in his life. It's probably no coincidence that his own mother would portray the older Mary at the end of the film.
With economics student Enrique Irazoqui cast in the lead, Pasolini's aim was to "follow, point for point, the gospel according to Saint Matthew, without making any script and without any reduction." He added, "I will faithfully translate images, without omissions to or deletions from the story. Even the dialogue must be strictly that of Saint Matthew, without even a line of explanation or feeder lines: because no images or words inserted can ever be of the poetic height of the text.… I want to make a work of poetry. Not a religious work in the current sense of the term nor a work of ideology. In words both simple and poor: I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer – at least not consciously. But I believe Christ to be divine and I believe there was in him a humanity so great, rigorous and ideal as to go beyond the common terms of humanity.”
The film premiered Sept. 4, 1964 at the 25th Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Special Jury Prize. It would go on to also receive the Catholic Film Office Grand Prize. Critical reception, as one would expect with this subject matter, and with this filmmaker, ran the gamut. It was called, "A religious film and religious propaganda beneath the facade of a faithful transcription of the Gospel made by a Marxist..."; it was "A fine film, a Christian film that produces a profound impression." "The author - without renouncing his own ideology - has faithfully translated, with a simplicity and a human density sometimes moving, the social message of the Gospel - in particular the love for the poor and oppressed - sufficiently respecting the divine dimension of Christ," wrote one critic. "The fact is that this film is an authentic preaching of Communism, using the words of Matthew maliciously interpreted ... to have given this work a prize, and even in the presence of Fathers [of the church] was a humiliating concession to error ... to confusion," wrote another.
It's hard to imagine that today this film could stir the sort of contentious reaction of Hail Mary (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), or even The Passion of the Christ (2004) - make no mistake though, King of Kings (1961) it is not. As with many movies dealing with religious topics, views on the film are going to be heavily swayed by personal belief, usually before quality of filmmaking can be assessed. But if one is able to wipe aside spiritual sensibilities and focus on craft, The Gospel According to St. Matthew surely stands as one of the best films to undertake this sensitive subject. Indeed, it is simply one of the great works of world cinema. Pasolini's distinct style, a modern, art-film blend of neorealism and documentary, is rugged and unadorned. The performers, though competent enough here, particularly the engaging Irazoqui, are all nonprofessionals; and the settings (in Italy) and costumes are remarkably authentic, yet notably peculiar.
Pasolini would continue to make films throughout the 1960s and into the '70s. This would include three extraordinary trilogies: those of his "mythic" period - Oedipus Rex (1967), Teorema (1968), and Medea (1969), and those of his "third path," the films that comprise his "Trilogy of Life" - The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). His last film, the brilliant Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), based on the Marquis de Sade's infamous work, would not be his final film by design. After completing this immensely powerful and extremely unsettling movie (maybe the most disturbing I've ever seen), Pasolini was found brutally murdered, under what are still mysterious circumstances. Pasolini, one of the greatest of all filmmakers, died November 2, 1975, at the age of 53.