Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Gospel According to Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), a film of the life of Christ remains one of the director's greatest works. That Pasolini actually made the film is remarkable - Pasolini himself was a gay Marxist, and prior to The Gospel According to Matthew he had caused a scandal with the short film La Ricotta, an irreverent look at the Passion, which almost landed him with a 4 month stretch in jail for blasphemy. However, a change of Popes at the Vatican had caused a shift towards a more liberal view, and after Pasolini submitted his shooting script was allowed to go ahead with his project.

The Gospel According to Matthew depicts most of the episodes from the life of Christ, but one can sense that Pasolini is more interested in Christ as an enraged social reformer rather that a deity. The film is closer to Pasolini's own film Accettone than The Greatest Story Ever Told. What is most extraordinary about the film is how it breaks with the traditional conventions of the Hollywood religious film. Pasolini uses Neo-Realist aesthetics, shooting in black & white with hand held cameras (by Pasolini’s regular cameraman Tonino Delli Colli who shot 12 of his films), tight, abrupt and sometimes patchwork editing, and a cast of non-professional actors - a mixture of people Pasolini found on location, and a number of writers and poets.

Intriguingly, Pasolini had considered Jack Kerouac for the role of Christ, but nixed the idea when he realised his image of Kerouac was based on a photograph 15 years out of date. One can almost sense the cinema veritae style of the film is informed by the rugged and ragged landscapes depicted in the film. Pasolini decided against shooting the film in the Holy Land, which he felt has overused and instead moved production to Calabria, an impoverished mountainous region south of Naples. Incredible also is the director's eclectic choice of the music from Bach and Mozart to rather brilliantly contemporary music like Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child (hauntingly sung by Odetta), the striking Congolese Missa Luba (for the credits), and Blind Willie Johnson’s wordless wail Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.

Worth mentioning also is Pasolini's casting of his mother Susanna to play the middle aged Virgin Mary, a choice which some commentators on the film have scoffed at. Watching the film now in 2009 I feel there is something of a strange resonance at work here - its now widely believed that Pasolini's brutal murder in 1975 was a political assassination. Speculation aside, what is evident is the influence the film had on Martin Scorsese's own film about the life of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese originally wanted to shoot his film in Southern Italy, (but instead settled on Morocco) and certainly Scorsese's Christ shares the same forcefulness and urgency as Pasolini's. Whether you belive the film is a piece of religious art or a classic of European cinema, it is in a word, magnificent.


  1. I have not seen any of Pasolini's films - they were not available in the American Midwest back in the day and I've no other excuse for recent days when they must be more available. This sounds really good - and jumps on to my To See list with so many other movies. I really need science to get on extending our lives so I have time to watch everything I need to see!

  2. It's definitely one to see Craig, I've been a card-carrying athiest since I was old enough to ponder life's Big Questions, yet when I see this film, it lends me however briefly, some kind of spiritual experience... it's really unlike any other story of Christ that you might have seen...