Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film

By Lloyd Baugh | Go to book overview

6
The Masterpiece: The Gospel
According to Saint Matthew

Pier Paolo Pasolini film, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 1 in the minds of most serious critics is still the greatest, the most authentic and "the most religious film on Jesus ever made." 2 It was premiered at the International Film Festival of Venice on 4 September 1964. An Italo-French coproduction, 3 it was given important awards at the Venice Festival but unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, it did not receive a wide distribution in the United States, and "got most of its showings on college campuses after its initial theatrical release." 4

Pasolini's Jesus-film project began two years earlier during a visit to Assisi. While guest of the Catholic cultural organization, Pro Civitate Christiana,5 in October 1962, and more or less confined to the house by the town's busy preparations for the visit of Pope John XXIII -- to whose "dear happy memory" Pasolini later dedicated the film -- the director found a copy of the New Testament on his bedside table. He turned to the gospels, and in his own words, "that day . . . I read them from beginning to end, like a novel." 6 The experience was like a bolt of lightning for Pasolini, who describes how he felt "an immediate need to 'do something' -- a terrible, almost physical energy." 7

In 1964, when The Gospel According to Saint Matthew came out, Pasolini was forty-two years of age. A prolific writer and man of culture, he had already published some twenty-eight books of poetry and essays, film scripts and novels, and in cinema he had worked on the scripts of some fifteen films, and had himself made five films. 8 Active also politically, Pasolini had been a member of the Italian Communist party, from which he was expelled in 1952 because of the scandal caused by his publicly-admitted homosexuality and some run-ins with the law in this regard. His short film of 1963, La ricotta, got him in trouble once again: the film was judged blasphemous and insulting to the Catholic faith, the religion of the state. 9 Pasolini was arrested, tried and given a four-month suspended sentence.

It is from this rich, varied and troubled background that Pasolini, a kind of national Italian enfant terrible, came to the project of making The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, and there is no doubt that this background left its mark on the film and on the portrait of Jesus which it presents. For example, Pasolini's past can be sensed in his preference for Matthew's Jesus: he was attracted by "the revolutionary quality of his [Jesus'] social diversity, of his non-violence, of the power of moral thought." 10 One senses it in Pasolini's objections to the other gospels: "Mark's seemed too crude, John's too mystical, and Luke's, sentimental and bourgeois." 11 Further, Pasolini insists

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