FB100:#98 – The Gospel According to St. Matthew

This post is part of a project to watch the Film Bloggers’ 100 Favorite Non-English Films. See my progress here.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew

The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Italy 1964; dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini
starring: Enrique Irazoqui, Settimo Di Porto, Giacomo Morante
screened 12/30/07; VHS

Previous Viewing Experience: I have tried to watch this film, unsuccessfully. I think I made it through about the first five or ten minutes before I got really bored and quit. This was probably eight or ten years ago, though, when I was a teenager, so we’ll see if my attention span has improved.

Knowledge Before Viewing: My previous experience of trying to watch it has left me thinking it’s slow-moving and sort of…non-commital. The second thing fits with what I’ve heard about the film being a cinema verite, almost documentary-like version of Christ’s life.

Brief Synopsis: Exactly what you’d expect; the story of Jesus as told by Matthew’s gospel.

Initial Viewing Response: Right, so I’m perfectly willing to acclaim this as pretty much the most straight-forward, accurate version of Jesus’ life (perhaps excepting the Jesus movie, which is primarily used as an evangelical tool). But what catapults it into the realm of great cinema I haven’t yet figured out. My initial expectation of a non-commital storytelling style is spot-on, but I had thought it was supposed to be highly realistic and naturalistic; instead many of the scenes felt very staged and the actors were all very measured and stiff. I’ll need to read a bit about the production–that could be a side-effect of casting non-actors, who are sometimes paradoxically less naturalistic than trained actors (there are exceptions, like the girl Vittorio De Sica cast in Umberto D). Only the various scenes that have children in them (Palm Sunday, for example) have any sense of spontaneity and immediacy. This isn’t to say that there aren’t powerful scenes. Obviously the source material is powerful on its own, and that shows through in the Pharisee-conflict scenes and the slaughter of the innocents (which actually reminded me of Potemkin‘s Odessa Steps sequence). I also found the use of English-language spirituals interesting, mixed in with more traditional church choir music. The idea of Jesus as an Italian peasant isn’t as strong as I expected it to be, though most of the costumes and buildings are believable as either Italy or Rome-occupied Israel. Basically, I’m trying to figure out what it is that I’m meant to get out of the film that I can’t get from reading the Bible, and I haven’t found anything yet. It’s a very literal adaptation, but where is Pasolini in it? (I haven’t seen any other Pasolini films, so I may be at a bit of a disadvantage there.)

Reflective Response: I was supposed to write this a few days after seeing the film, but it’s ended up being about three weeks. Ah well. After I wrote the initial response, I read the back of the video case, and it mentioned that the simplicity and directness of the film was in some ways at odds with the opulence of the Italian Roman Catholic Church, which I can definitely see. So what I may have missed in my initial viewing was the fact that presenting a peasant-class Jesus in a simple setting might have actually been quite radical when Pasolini made the film; it doesn’t seem that way to me, because that’s how I tend to think of Jesus anyway (perhaps as a Protestant, perhaps as a Biblical literalist). In any case, my initial reaction sounds as though I don’t find any value at all in literal adaptations, which isn’t entirely true–I just don’t think they’re as interesting, and while I might put a film like The Gospel According to St. Matthew on a list of great adaptations, I don’t know that I would put it on a list of great films. On the other hand, I’m fairly sure I’ve missed something.