Pier Paolo Pasolini’s radical yet sincere retelling of the Biblical story has appeal beyond the merely religious.
Note: reviewing a film like this, it’s easy to allow one’s own religious views to colour opinion and interpretation, not only of the film for the reviewer but also of the review for the reader. So to be clear: all comments criticisms below relate to the film, the interpretation of the story and the characters as displayed in the movie – nothing more. Okay?
The Gospel According to Matthew is at once one of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s most commercial yet difficult films. Given that it’s a straightforward Biblical adaptation from a notorious gay Marxist atheist, that might be understandable. But while this might well be loved by committed Christians who live, breathe and eat the Bible, it’s a little harder to take for those of us who are not, simply because while the story is familiar to everyone, the film itself plays like a selection of the Best Bits of the Gospel, with little room for character development or story progression. Rather than trying to craft a compulsive narrative, Pasolini instead just grabs the highlights of the story and presents them as a series of individual moments. So we go from Christ’s birth, through Herod’s surprisingly graphic slaughter of the firstborn to the meetings with John the Baptist and the disciples and the eventual crucifixion and resurrection, without ever really getting a feel for any of the people we meet. For worshippers who feel they know Jesus and the other characters in this story like their own family, this might not be a problem; for others, it will be. And as we’ve seen from other filmmakers, it is possible to humanise these familiar characters and tell this story as a coherent narrative – for whatever reason, Pasolini fails to do so here. I’m sure that was an intentional move on his part, but personally, I think it was a mistake.
Certainly, the Christ here is very much a Catholic (and possibly evangelical) interpretation, more about punishing the guilty than saving the sinner, and also a Pasolini interpretation – Christ as revolutionary firebrand. Enrique Irazoqui looks more like a Hoxton hipster than the usual hippy Jesus and plays the role with a furious intensity. This is a Christ less interested in forgiveness than Old Testament-style punishment for the mildest transgression against his word (and if the film does anything, it certainly shows the rampant contradictions of the Bible, as Christ goes from preaching love, peace and forgiveness to promising fire and brimstone within moments). Irazoqui often looks on the verge of erupting with anger – though ironically, the scene of his throwing the merchants out of the temple is ineffectually weak.
Now, don’t get me wrong – there is much to admire here, in technique if not in narrative. Pasolini brings a neo-realism style to his story, making it far removed from the glossy Hollywood Biblical epics that preceded it. His authentic locations (there’s a fascinating one-hour documentary following him as he scouts locations across Israel, though the film ended up being shot in Sicily), his cast of well-worn faces and his blunt visual style all give this a documentary authenticity, while his use of music, jumping from classical to blues, is inspired. He certainly doesn’t hold back from showing the brutality of the times – even now, there are shocking moments here (and it’s unlikely that the BBFC would grant such scenes a ‘U’ certificate in any non-biblical film), while the film as a whole has a stark beauty to it, with some of the most remarkable visual tableaus you could hope to see.
Constantly intriguing, often frustrating, The Gospel According to Matthew is more a film to admire than enjoy. It should be seen, by all means – but expect to be as irritated as you are impressed.
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