This week I worked my way through The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s version of a biblical epic (it arrived in the U.S. shortly after George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told , from which it could not be more different). Under the direction of the radically uncompromising Pasolini, to whom various scandalous markers (Marxist! atheist! gay! etc.) are usually attached, the story of Jesus becomes one of rebellion and political martyrdom. It’s a powerful but defiantly unsentimental interpretation of the life of Christ. Where other filmmakers (for instance, Mel Gibson) have traditionally staged Christ’s passion by lingering lovingly and heavily over every drop of sweat (or blood) and every tear, Pasolini is disarmingly off-hand and naturalistic in handling these most familiar of scenes. He works his way through the stations of the cross in about ten minutes.
Pasolini also has a wonderful command of space and crowds, which he owes to Italian neo-realism (the film was made in rural Calabria with non-professional actors, including Pasolini’s mother as Mary). The crowd scenes are messy; the slaughter of the innocents, staged in long-shot on the side of a hill, with a band of gawky, teenage-looking Roman soldiers rushing clumsily after mothers with their children, feels realistic and terrifying. And when we see Salome, she’s not a tarted-up vixen but rather a small, frail child who does not even herself seem to understand the meaning of what she does. Nothing that happens in the film is cloaked in the mantle of “importance” as it is in just about any Hollywood interpretation of the life of Jesus. Events occur without fanfare, while children or old people or animals go about their business on the edges of the frame. It’s hard not to think of Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts” here: like the Old Masters, Pasolini prefers to imagine the events of Jesus’ life as happening “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
So while The Gospel According to Saint Matthew takes the story of Jesus seriously, it is shockingly irreverent in the sense that Pasolini refuses to put golden haloes of light around everything. It declines to revere its subject matter, or even its hero. As played by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui (pictured above), Jesus looks like a curiously but undeniably sexy hipster, albeit one whose brows are badly in need of waxing. Nor is Pasolini’s Jesus particularly…Christlike. In fact, at times he’s kind of a jerk, particularly when he refuses to give private audience to his mother and siblings. He works miracles matter-of-factly, without the tendresse that usually occupies depictions of them. And the (intentional?) clumsiness with which Pasolini stages some of these scenes—the utter rejection, say, of anything that could even remotely be called "special effects"—is yet another means of rendering them with something approaching objectivity. But this irreverent clumsiness, this attempt to give us an “objective” imagining of the life of Christ (if such a thing is even possible), is itself a far more respectable approach to dealing with religion on film than, say, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which (as Stanley Kaufmann noted) turns the New Testament into an excuse to trot out a series of lame Hollywood cameos. Only in being irreverent could Pasolini do justice to the story of Jesus.