film 4 of 5

The Gospel According to Matthew

Draft Review by Dean Duncan Jun 3, 2015

An extraordinarily pure film, it is just what the title suggests, the screenplay taken only from Matthew reveals how very sparse and uninflected the gospels are, and Pasolini has the grace and restraint to keep it that way, usually adaptors can’t leave the warm hard facts alone, having to tart the story up and wrap bows and smear icing and be overemphatic about the big moments, which also appear and are felt here but somehow feel more earned; usually one mentions the neo-realist remnants, which are here in the real people and the awkward moments and the locations, but it all seems more intimately connected with ritual theatre (Mary and Joseph and the angel at the beginning just look, pretending no movement or flexibility or naturalness, just defiantly frontal and presentational)–the actors look uncomfortable because they’re not actors, they’re people trying to understand and personalize holy things–and medieval painting: all these reactions shots of still and worn iconic faces who can’t respond conventionally and don’t need to, not integrated into a deep space background, but taking up our complete attention–in fact the use of neo-realist peasants as iconic figures actually inscribes into the film the complete relationships that embody those old paintings and plays and the services they informed (instead of passive viewing, the communicants actually participate in the ritual!); again, the Pasolini lovers (given later works) might take it for modernism, but similar forms predate this whiny century, and the implications are more profound, namely no identification (this superb Jesus is not what we’d expect or want physically) or illusion, no invisible style, just stern unblinking unapologetic confrontation with the teachings and the sufferings and the miracles; not to say there aren’t striking film bits: Joseph’s learning and returning, the wise men kissing the baby, the parents with the toddler in Egypt, the slaughter’s harrowing, a beautiful cutaway miracle with 5 loaves/2 fishes/Jesus/and then baskets overflowing, the healing of the deformed face man, the unblinking sermon on the mount with a long series of close-ups and dissolves (acknowledging the sermon’s fragmentary nature), walking on the water, Judas’ stunning dialectical betrayal (2 screen directions collide and result in terrible stasis, then break into the fleeing disciples), James and Peter hearing the accusations from a distance (Marx again, not taking the aristocrat’s view?), Peter’s devastation, Mary and companions wailing beneath the cross; where’s Marx? in the revolutionary teachings first (and the seemingly heartfelt dedication to the late pope affirms that apparent conflicts aren’t), and in the African music that starts and ends it and accompanies the entry to Jerusalem (this is for the downtrodden and colonialized), in the Prokofieff/Eisenstein music when the innocents are slaughtered and John’s slain? in the negro blues when chips are down, in the neo-realist techniques, especially the anachronistic get-up of the scribes, pharisees and hypocrites which makes Christ’s critique apply as well to the medieval church (Van Eyck, Man in a Red Turban, 1433, p. 705, look for more, like the anachronisms prevalent in all early painting), and maybe the modern one too; music requires more figuring out but it’s mostly St. Matthew’s Passion, which makes sense with the common source, but also suggests (Lutheran–?) liturgical music and more presentationalism, the in deepest grief stuff prefigures the passion, in episodes even from childhood, as does, repeatedly, a violin transcription of (I think) the bass aria: I will gladly submit myself to take up cross and cup, since I drink as my saviour did; for his mouth which flows with milk and honey, has made the cause and the bitter shame of suffering sweet through his first draught. or is it the violin part preceding the alto aria: have mercy, my God, for my tears’ sake; look hither heart and eyes weep bitterly before Thee; Have mercy!; here is the audience’s participation, its response to the film’s ritual call–we watch, and humbly play our part in accepting the cross