Holiday Viewing: The Gospel According to St. Matthew

“The most sublime Texts ever written”

Looking for some old time religion this Christmas season? Look no further than The Gospel According to St. Matthew, director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s straightforward retelling of that Gospel: the original story of Christ, as it were, stripped of the nearly two millennia of Catholic doctrine, interpretation, and indoctrination.

Pasolini was an eccentric genius of the Italian New Wave, born out of the post-WWII neo-realism – raw, unapproachable, inaccessible, didactic. Openly gay at a time and place when that was way beyond scandalous, he eventually was brutally murdered in 1975 under suspicious circumstances on a deserted beach outside Rome – testicles crushed, then run over repeatedly by his own car – a crime that was never solved, but has been variously ascribed to the Mafia, a jealous lover, right-wing moralists, the Italian government, and the Catholic Church. But in the 15 years before that, he made a dozen films that helped guide Italian cinema – and the Italian left wing – through the Sixties. (Read more about him in one of the classic film books, Pasolini on Pasolini: Interviews With Oswald Stack.)

Matthew, Pasolini’s third film, may be an anomaly in a career better known for its depravity, but maybe it was something he just had to get off his chest – his definitive statement of how he could be both a devout Communist, and a devout Catholic. Michael Ventura described the film eloquently in his Letters at 3AM column in the Chronicle on Easter movies: “The Gospel According to St. Matthew was filmed in 1964, in Sicily, a landscape not unlike Palestine. Shot in black and white, and using only local nonprofessionals, director Pier Paolo Pasolini (whose mother plays Mary) achieves something extraordinary: Following Matthew to the letter, and shooting in villages that are centuries old, with peasant Mediterranean faces, he gets a documentary effect. You feel this is close to the way things actually looked.”

The pacing is, shall we say, deliberate, with the careful compositions and long takes that hark back to classic neo-realism (and perhaps Botticelli before that). And the dialogue is sparse, all taken directly from the gospel text. So, from the first, long, lingering, beatific shot of the glowingly pregnant Mary, we know we’re not in for an action thriller. But nor are we in for a character study: There’s not much depth or introspection to this Jesus Christ, there’s just mostly his words – or some first-century scribe’s retelling of Matthew’s description of his words, but either way, it’s the ideas that count here: the Christian ideals of service, sacrifice, the golden rule, and the very communistic idea that wealth should be shared, people should be fed, and the rich have a reckoning coming. Imagine.

For bonus viewing – and a clue as to where St. Matthew was coming from, Pasolini’s short film “La Ricotta” is included as an extra on the Criterion DVD of Mamma Roma (1962). Made as part of the 1963 compilation film RoGoPaG, “La Ricotta” is a brutal black comedy about a ragtag film crew (directed by Orson Welles, who has absolutely the best lines in the film) shooting a schmaltzy version of the crucifixion story, while its workers and extras starve, and one eventually dies, on the cross, as a result of his mistreatment. It’s a viciously anti-Catholic little tale, which was censored and banned in Italy and elsewhere; Pasolini was tried in court for "offense to the Italian state and religion," and eventually convicted and sentenced to four months in prison. One imagines that this is exactly the reaction he must have been hoping for: contemporary, vivid proof of his contention that the Church had completely subverted the original meanings of the Gospels and the teachings of Christ. As if to make a preemptive response to that criticism, “La Ricotta” begins with opening titles from Pasolini and the Gospels themselves:

Nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. – Gospel According to Saint Mark

… And he threw out the moneylenders, and kicked their tables out of the area, And to the sellers of pigeons he said: “Get out of here, and don’t make a market in my father’s house.” – Gospel According to Saint John

So it’s not hard to predict, therefore, the interested, ambiguous, scandalized judgments of my story. Well then, I want to declare here that, however you might take ‘La Ricotta,’ the Story of the Passion – which ‘La Ricotta’ indirectly retells – is for me the greatest which has ever occurred, and the Texts which retell them, the most sublime which have ever been written. – Pier Paolo Pasolini

And for fans of il cinema italiano, here are some other recommendations, in a preview I wrote for a 2001 Italian film series at AFS, which included Pasolini’s first two movies, Accatone and Mamma Roma.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s
Feature Filmography

Mamma Roma
1961: Accattone
1962: Mamma Roma
1964: The Gospel According to St. Matthew
1966: Hawks and Sparrows (Uccellacci e Uccellini)
1967: Oedipus Rex
1968: Teorema
1969: Porcile
1970: Medea
1971: The Decameron
1972: The Canterbury Tales
1974: Arabian Nights
1975: Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is currently available to stream on Fandor and Amazon Prime, and for rental at local video stores.

Throughout December, the Chronicle film team is highlighting some of our favorite seasonal film and TV offerings. Find a new recommendation every day at our Holiday Movie Advent Calendar.

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Christmas movies, holiday movies, Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Mamma Roma, Italian neo-realism, Holiday Movie Advent Calendar

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