Part of a series on The Irish American Catholic Mets’ Fan on movies based on the Gospel.
I have to begin with my favorite story about this film and one of my favorite stories about film of all time.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew was directed by Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini– who was an avowed Marxist, atheist, and gay. He dedicated the film, as we find out in the first frame, “to the dear, joyous, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII” who reached out to befriend Pasolini in the interests of greater dialogue with non-believers.
It gets better.
According to legend (like most legends it has multiple versions; by all means, if you know a different one, tell it), Pasolini cast Enrique Irazoqui in the role of Jesus when Irazoqui came to his door collecting for the Italian Communist Party.
Pasolini essentially told the not-quite-twenty Irazoqui “I haven’t got any money for you kid, but how’d you like to be in a movie?” Irazoqui said he couldn’t possibly accept because he was dedicated to serving the party and if he was cast in the movie, he would be less able to serve the cause. Pasolini explained to him that by being in this movie, he would be helping the cause.
Signor Pasolini, you tell no lies.
That’s not to say The Gospel According to St. Matthew is in execution The Gospel According to Karl. Pasolini does not take any socialist liberties with scripture. In fact, he takes hardly any liberties at all. This is a very unadorned straightforward interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s practically a word-for-word retelling. Pasolini seems to figure that if he just tells Jesus’s story flat out, that by itself will go a long way toward furthering his Marxist political agenda.
He’s more or less right.
In Being Catholic Now, Anna Quindlen says she can’t figure out how any kind of conservative movement could ever count the Gospel as central to their beliefs because the Gospel is such a progressive document. Conservative movements, Christian and otherwise, are a little more complicated than that, but after watching The Gospel According to St. Matthew, I see what she means. For all its myriad flaws, communism did at least originate as a critique of something that cried out for correction: economic injustice. Watch this rendition of Matthew’s Gospel and you realize just how central the theme of economic justice is to that book.
One look at the characters populating this film and you understand that they’re not merely poor, they’re just barely surviving. Those rugged hills all around them look mighty unforgiving and every town from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is a step above a pile of bricks. Their clothing is simple and drab. Their faces are decidedly un-Hollywood in their plainness, and the expressions on them are of people who haven’t had anything to be happy about in a long time and aren’t holding their breaths waiting for the next time they’ll be happy. In case you still don’t get it, they’re underscored at different points by Odetta singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Blind Willie Johnson playing “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground.” These are the conquered, the beaten-down, the struggling, the hopeless.
These are the people Christ joins. He looks like them, lives like them. He ministers to them. He heals them. He comes to bring them the Gospel and by God do these people ever look like the could use good news right about now.
The good newshe brings is the same good news we’ve known about for 2000 years. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Come unto me all you who labor. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. It’s right there in your dusty old King James Bible. In this film, in the mouth of Enrique Irazoqui playing Jesus, they’re not dusty and old any more. They’re immediate and real, as quietly intense as Irazoqui himself. Pasololini stays out of his way and the Gospel’s way. There’s nothing fancy going on here; the Sermon on the Mount is done almost entirely as a close-up of Irazoqui. Just preach, Jesus, just preach. Preach to the poor and the outcast. Let them know whose part God really takes in a world of haves and have-nots. In Pasolini’s world, it’s crystal clear who that is. Not only is Christ united with the poor, he’s practically hostile to the wealthy. The forgotten and marginalized get to hear about the poor in spirit and easy yokes and light burdens. The rich find out it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to it is for them to reach the kingdom of heaven. They find out they can’t serve God and mammon. The powerful are told in no uncertain terms what a bunch of hypocrites they are. This is the economic justice of the Gospel as Pasolini sees it. And he hardly changes a syllable of it for this movie.
So many film renditions of scripture proceed from the idea that scripture needs to be jazzed up. We need a spectacular wall of water as Charlton Heston marches through the Red Sea. We need Robert Powell, James Mason, and none other than Laurence Olivier speaking the Gospel in Eton-perfect English accents. We need Jim Caviezel’s blood and guts spilled all over every frame. It all assumes that scripture needs help. The message isn’t nearly enough.
For Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Gospel is plenty. The message of hope for those with nothing, the warning that material advantages are spiritual disadvantages for those with everything, that God sees how the goods of this world are distributed and sides with the shut-out, needs no dressing up. The Gospel According to St. Matthew is the cinematic equivalent of a 95-mile-an-hour fastball right down the middle. This is the Gospel, Pasolini just exactly as it is. It says the weak and the suffering are not alone and there’s hope and that privlieged ought not be too comfortable. Let’s see if you can handle it.
It took a gay Marxist atheist to do it.
If that’s not God writing straight with crooked lines I don’t know what is.
Next in the Hooray for Holy-wood series: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973, directed by Norman Jewison).