The Gospel According to St Matthew: a minimal neo-realist tale of struggle against corruption and injustice

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Gospel According to St Matthew / Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo” (1964)

Perhaps more historically accurate or Biblically faithful films – or even just better acted films – have been made about the life of Jesus Christ but few of them surely can match Pasolini’s retelling for power and intensity. Opting for a minimal realist approach using non-professional actors with working-class southern Italian backgrounds, Pasolini draws out the gospel’s message of Jesus’ struggle for social justice against a corrupt religious leadership and the price he had to pay for breaking social conventions and standing up to corrupt hierarchical power and injustice. Shorn of all religious associations, Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui, aged 19 years at the time) is presented as an intense and charismatic young revolutionary who nevertheless is not without his contradictions and his moments of doubt and even loss of hope.

The gospel is presented as it is in the Bible, in a series of tableaux and impressions with a heavy focus on close-ups of actors’ faces in their distinctive rough-hewn and weathered glory as befits the working-class people who rallied to Jesus’ call and preaching all those centuries ago. The near-desert environment and the urban landscapes with their rabbit warren buildings clinging to hillsides and linked by labyrinthine streets give the film an exotic otherworldly appearance in which a man powered by divine spirit truly might walk among mortals. Unusual camera angles, abrupt edits, long periods of silence and faces that look so implacable and emotionless that they might have been carved out of Mt Rushmore add to the film’s alien yet matter-of-fact tone.

Filming on the proverbial shoe-string budget means that fancy special effects are out of the question, yet deft editing and imagination take care of scenes where special effects might be called for: the five loaves and the two fishes miraculously feed the crowds gathered around Jesus in a way that comes over as completely natural and straightforward yet audiences can still go slack-jawed at the clever editing involved. The Devil appears as an unassuming traveller and the visions he presents to Jesus to tempt him look completely realistic.

The film’s pace may be very uneven and some significant scenes in Jesus’ life go missing for unexplained reasons. At times the film does drag but after the man is betrayed and arrested by soldiers, the movie starts to move much faster. That the acting ranges from indifferent to bad should be no surprise – all the actors are amateurs after all – and this focuses audience attention on to the film’s message itself and the way it presents Jesus as a mostly serious and uncompromising leader whose compassion appears rarely and briefly. (But when it does appear, it seems more genuine than if it were to appear frequently.)

The musical soundtrack is very eclectic with selections from Afro-American gospel music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Congolese Christian folk music.

The film does not attempt to interpret the gospel narrative but gives a bare-bones rendition of it. Some viewers may find parts of it long and boring. Whatever prior knowledge of the gospel stories people bring to their viewing of the film, they are likely to come away with strong feelings about the film. The minimal neo-realist presentation, the stark setting and the casting of rural workers with no prior acting experience in several roles strip away sentimentality and what we get is a¬†classic story of one man’s heroism against an oppressive system and a message of hope.