Thursday, March 17, 2011

Personal Response to "The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)"

I recently watched the 1964 Italian film The Gospel According to St. Matthew directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

I'm not sure what originally put this film on my radar, but I've been interested in watching it for awhile. This film is unique in that it tells the story of just one of the Gospels (Matthew, as indicated by the title) instead of combining the story of Jesus as told in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This film in Italian (with subtitles) in black and white is not told with any sort of speed, in fact it can be quite drawn out in it's telling, for example, the film starts with some lingering shots of Joseph and the pregnancy Mary looking back at one another prior to Joseph walking away and encountering the angel Gabriel who helps explain Mary's pregnancy to him.

It is said that Pasolini, an atheist, homosexual, and Marxist, read the four Gospels in a hotel in 1962 and felt compelled to make a movie about one of the Gospels. He felt like John was too mystical, Luke too sentimental, and Mark to graphic.

As a result, he chose Matthew, and it is interesting because if there is one thing I took away from this film is the way in which different images of the Christ story, can take the same passage filmed and imaged in books and art over and over, and still provide something different.

Now, I wouldn't encourage the idea of artists superimposing things falsely into the story of Jesus, and it's not like Pasolini placed a UFO encounter in the story or took a liberal view of the story. Instead, I felt like Pasolini approached the project with the integrity to tell the story as it was written with his own images.

And I must say, Pasolini's visions are different than some I imagine. There are some things, I just have barely taken the time to imagine, like the images of the killing of babies at the order of Herod after Jesus was born, and I've never really taken the time to absorb the length of time Jesus would be teaching at times with people gathered around him, but the way that Pasolini presented the sermon on the mount with cuts between the teachings created a unique image that I imagine will stick with me.

Other times, Pasolini's images were simply different then I had ever seen before, that didn't match the typical presentation I'm familiar with. The strongest example of this is the way in which John the Baptist was presented far different then I've ever seen before. This John the Baptist sprinkled instead of emerged the Baptized, and he was far more subdued and reserved than the wilder image presented in other tellings.

In watching this film with a friend, there was definitely a time when we watched it through a Mystery Science Theater 3000 lens, often finding some scenes just straight up comical, including some camera work that seemed to loose a disciple or two and search for them with the lens, or the lingering shots of faces that occasionally surprised you. Oh yes, and there's also the issue of the unibrow that is for some reason drawn on the face of Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui).

But beyond the unibrow, there is definitely an aspect of Jesus in this film that seems abrasive and not so endearing. It's wasn't an over-the-top abrasiveness, but more of an arrogance and introspectiveness that I found somewhat challenging compared to my personal perspective on the personhood of Jesus.

All the same, whether it's a different view of Jesus or the influence of 1960s Italian film making, it makes for an interesting case for where and how on a personal level we have derived the image of who Jesus is and what his time on earth was truly like. I'm sure we often superimpose many images, ideas, and our own times on the original text. It made me at least begin the process of thinking about my own mental images of the Jesus story and challenging what cultural images I may have superimposed on the story of Christ.

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