Though his first two films contained serious religious overtones, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s point of view was never going to line up exactly with that of the Vatican. Accattone (1961) and especially Mamma Roma (1962) posited that the underclass of ‘60s Italy was closer to God than the supposedly pious bourgeoisie of a society that called itself Catholic. Unsurprisingly, Pasolini’s radical combination of Christian iconography and stark neorealism, which depicted pimps, thieves, and poor workers as modern religious icons, didn’t sit well with the church. Even if Pasolini had presented himself as a straightforward Catholic, it’s unlikely that the church would want to be associated with an openly gay Marxist, though the director’s relationship to sexuality and leftist politics was probably no less complicated than his religious views were.
Suffice to say, Pasolini was not generally considered to be a Christian artist at this point of his career. In 1962, Pasolini was invited by Pope John XXIII to a dialogue between high-ranking members of the Vatican and non-Catholic artists. Apparently something in this meeting struck a chord with Pasolini, as he subsequently visited Assisi to attend a seminar at a Franciscan monastery. At some point during this trip, Pasolini came across a copy of the New Testament and read all four gospels straight through, in the process gaining inspiration for a film called The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).
In the interim between the Assissi trip and the filming of The Gospel, Pasolini was commissioned to film one of the four segments for an omnibus film entitled RoGoPaG (the odd title being a combination of the first letters of the four directors’ last names: Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the lesser-known Ugo Gregoretti). Pasolini’s 32-minute contribution was La ricotta (1963), a project clearly inspired by the preparation that that the director was doing for The Gospel. In many ways, this short film is just as much a statement of purpose as The Gospel wound up being, and it finds Pasolini further developing his concept of the poor as the true modern spiritual figures while also offering a blatant criticism of the bloated epics that often passed for religious cinema in the 1960s.
La ricotta takes place during the filming of what appears to be a glossy religious epic in the style of King of Kings (1961). The opening credits of La ricotta roll over color footage of the film-within-a-film’s crew doing a twist to a frivolous and simplistically repetitive pop instrumental. After this jarring opener, the first instance of color cinematography in Pasolini’s cinema, the film alternates between documentary-style black and white footage of the cast and crew of the Biblical epic joking around between takes and static color shots of the actors in the film attempting to hold iconographic poses around a cross as frustrated offscreen stagehands yell commands. The in-between takes scenes alternate between the distant and seemingly depressed director (Orson Welles) brooding from his director’s chair, and depictions of the struggles of a poor extra named Stracci (Mario Cipriani) to get some food for himself and his starving family. Eventually, members of the cast mock Stracci by overfeeding him huge amounts of cheese and watermelon, shortly before a scene where the extra has to go up on a cross. The huge amount of food that the poor man eats, combined with the awkward position he has to assume as he is “crucified” on film winds up killing Stracci. Finally noticing his extra’s death, the director laments that Stracci “had no other way to remind us that he was alive.”
La ricotta is even bolder than Mamma Roma in its treatment of Italy’s underclass as modern religious icons, largely because the film is more openly critical of the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie than the earlier films were. Where Accattone was concerned entirely with poor characters, and Mamma Roma featured only brief glimpses of slightly more middle class figures, La ricotta features an entire film cast and crew who stand in for Italy’s upper crust. Stracci’s status as an alternately mocked and ignored extra marks him as a clear representative of Italy’s suffering working class. La ricotta makes its point rather bluntly, showing the characters that represent Italy’s dominant value system behaving cravenly while attempting to appear pious, while the character representing the poor is crucified right under their noses. But it’s a good kind of bluntness, making a fairly complicated point in a clear, concise, and memorable way. It helps that much of the film is presented as a broad comedy rather than a humorless morality play.
Pasolini also complicates the film’s potentially over-schematic plot by apparently identifying himself with Orson Welles’ director character. While the film that Welles’ character is making appears to be the polar opposite of what The Gospel According to St. Matthew would become, and is obviously meant to be a critique of big-budget Biblical epics, Pasolini nonetheless has the Welles character read one of Pasolini’s own poems out loud at one point, suggesting an element of self-critique. Though Pasolini celebrates the working class in this film and others, he also seems hyper-aware here of his own status as a relatively privileged middle-class citizen. It seems that Pasolini may have doubted whether he, as a person occupying a similar social status to Welles’ character, had the ability to make a sincere religious film.
Despite whatever reservations Pasolini may have felt about his ability to depict the life and death of Christ, he ultimately went through with his plans to depict the Passion in his third feature-length film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). Departing almost entirely from the expected aesthetic of Biblical films, The Gospel is presented in a gritty black and white, neorealistic style that suggests what it might have looked like if cinema verite documentarians had been present during Jesus’ lifetime. While the filmmaking style is similar to the aesthetic that Pasolini had previously adopted on Accattone and Mamma Roma, the context and setting of the new film is obviously radically different. The effect makes The Gospel seem like one of the only truly serious Christian films. (The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 depiction of many of the same events, is also a serious film, but it is clearly intended as a radical interpretation of Biblical stories, whereas The Gospel seems more like an attempt to get an accurate version of Jesus’ life on screen). If I were a Christian, this would almost certainly be one of my all-time favorite films, but even as a non-believer I can appreciate The Gospel’s sincerity and ambition. It is clearly Pasolini’s most major and important cinematic statement to this point, and certainly one of the best religiously themed films ever made.
Working without a script, and condensing the events of Matthew’s Gospel only to the point needed to bring the film to an acceptable length, Pasolini brings the story of Jesus (too often depicted as a schlocky epic) back down to earth. The rough edges of Pasolini’s early films – the sometimes clumsy edits separating scenes, the occasionally stilted dialogue readings of his largely non-professional casts – are present here as well, and once again the almost-documentary feel makes the film feel more grounded and realistic than a normal movie. For his Jesus, Pasolini cast a Spanish economics student named Enrique Irazoqui, whose dark complexion and short black hair gives him the appearance of an actual person from the region where Christ is said to have lived rather than the conventional blond haired and blue eyed depiction of Jesus in most Christian iconography. There is something unusually believable about this film’s version of Christ, both as a member of the community depicted in the film and as a half-supernatural prophet who receives visions from God. Even the miracles that Jesus performs in the film are presented in a matter-of-fact way that makes them seem less like spectacles than like simple facts of life. The effect of Jesus walking on water was probably handled fairly simply, most likely accomplished by Irazoqui walking on an unseen platform under the water, but it is filmed in such a low-key way that it seems simultaneously miraculous and realistic.
It would certainly be reductive to say that The Gospel According to St. Matthew is simply an example of neorealism. Aside from the period setting and the occasional glimpses of the supernatural, the film has a fairly elaborate and complex use of background music that greatly expands on the beautiful use of classical music in Pasolini’s previous features. Where Accattone used multiple snippets of a Bach composition, and Mamma Roma utilized a handful of spiritual Vivaldi pieces, The Gospel draws music from a variety of different genres and sources. Classical music is prominent once again, with bits of Bach and Mozart appearing alongside snatches from Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). A version of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” appears at several different points, and there is also a snippet of a mournful Robert Johnston blues in one of the later scenes. The most striking and beautiful piece of music in the film is an African chant called “Missa Luba,” an ecstatic piece of music that appears during a number of the film’s miraculous events, such as Jesus’ birth and his later resurrection. Luis E. Bacalov also contributed some original music to the film, rounding out what is by far the most eclectic selection of music in any Pasolini film to this point.
Pasolini’s growing skills as a stylist are felt not only on the soundtrack, but in the way that he stages some of the film’s key scenes. His depiction of the Sermon on the Mount is particularly striking, with a closeup of Jesus’ face making each line feel personal rather than preachy. Each line is also clearly delivered on a different day, with the weather changing behind Jesus’ head, even as the whole multi-day sermon is edited together as one continuous speech, Christ’s demeanor unchanging whether it is the middle of calm day or the beginning of a stormy night. The decision to film Christ’s pre-crucifixion trial from a distance is uniquely tasteful; rather than overdramatize Jesus’ persecution with a bunch of expressionistic horror shots of his accuser’s grimaces, as Mel Gibson did in his hysterical Passion of the Christ (2004), Pasolini puts the viewer in the perspective of someone in the crowd, emphasizing our commonality with the film’s non-Christ characters rather than overplaying the sliminess of the men who put Jesus to death.
A large part of what makes Pasolini’s depiction of Jesus so convincing is that he doesn’t use Christ to stand in for any sort of cause. He simply presents the story of Jesus in the most realistic manner possible. While some commentators have referred to Pasolini’s version of Jesus as a Marxist, there isn’t much in the film to back that claim up; while Jesus delivers the famous line about a rich man entering Heaven being less likely than a needle passing through a camel’s eye, it isn’t as if that line is given more emphasis than any of Jesus’ more gnomic pronouncements. The film makes no attempt to convert viewers to a particular cause (including Christianity), and the version of Jesus presented in the film often seems as weird and unapproachable as a guy walking on water and claiming to be the son of God would if you actually encountered him in real life. Pasolini’s version of the Jesus story is the most convincing in popular culture precisely because it isn’t trying to sell the viewer anything, or use the story to justify any particular social agenda. It is a simple story told directly, powerfully, and beautifully.
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