I have yet to see a compelling film about the Christ story as told from a Christian filmmaker. They range from blasé attempts to present the Biblical narrative as “history” — and I mean this both as a criticism of rigid dogmatism and a criticism of the style they are often told in, one of boring high school history lessons lacking flavour and constructed like an overlong textbook devoid of pictures — to glorified torture porn disguised as piety that should shock and appal for all the wrong reasons.
I have, however, seen several accounts of the Bible told by secular filmmakers that are utterly fascinating, full of metaphor and imagery, that examine their source material — in particular, the Christ character — through a lens more appropriate to examining a historical figure who still has an impact on today’s world. The Last Temptation of Christ springs to mind, a film that dared to take Jesus seriously as a human being full of doubt and conflicting values, a man who felt both a higher calling and an inescapable feeling of inadequacy. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is another movie, this one made by an atheist, that examined Jesus from a Marxist context, that looked truly at the message of radical socialism and free love, and asked us what we can take from the story. While it is flavoured with mythological undertones, the movie never descends into the literal fundamentalism that modern Bible movies so often drown under.
Pasolini was primarily a poet, and, believing in the lyrical value of the Gospel of Matthew, he lifted all his dialogue directly from the source material. There is no embellishment to the fantastical elements of the story — the two biggest “magical” moments, namely Jesus’ miracles of the five loaves and two fish and his walking on water are not presented as swirling special effects sequences that are meant to make us think about how miraculous these unreal events are supposed to be, but rather are presented in a stark simplicity that simply highlight the allegorical nature of the scenes. Pasolini himself had expressed remorse at including these two scenes as he felt they were too obviously pious and not central to the socialist message of the film, and I agree to a certain extent: perhaps the loaves and fish sequence could have been removed without affecting anything, but the water walking scene is quite breathtaking and Jesus’ “why did you doubt?” line doubles down the effect of the rest of his message when coupled with Pasolini’s natural aesthetic. In fact, for a miraculous scene, there is nothing out of the ordinary about its presentation. There is Jesus, here are the disciples.
Terry Eagleton, also an atheist, described Jesus as a Marxist revolutionary in his book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.” For Eagleton, Jesus was a radical who placed the poor, the broken and the outcast at the centre of his revolution against the politics of the time. These outcasts, those abused by the system and (rightly) dissatisfied with it were to be the new rebels, so to speak, the driving force behind a new social system, and from there in the centre, he could spread his message outward and establish a new, socialist society that looked after all of its members with equal consideration. To Eagleton, Jesus became a political figure, one who threatened the power and as a result was politically executed, becoming a martyr and proving his own point that society was broken and in need of change.
For Pasolini, Jesus was also a Marxist revolutionary, one who viewed society as broken and in urgent need of remaking, and who sought to do so by blessing the poor, the outcast and the sinners, and condemning the rich, pious and hypocritical. A scene in which a rich man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to gain entrance to heaven stands out. Jesus replies, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:16-23, quote 19:21). Seen from a Marxist standpoint, this scene epitomizes the message of Jesus regarding political power and wealth and his rebellion against the social system of the day.
There is no need to recount the plot as Pasolini follows Matthew precisely, adamantly adhering to what he considered its artistic value. What stands out then is his neorealism and simplistic imagery. Casting non-actors in his roles, Pasolini’s Christ (Enrique Irazoqui) is a young man brimming with political rebellion but tethered by gentle compassion. Far from the overly-passionate portrayals found in nearly every other Jesus movie that attempts to make Jesus into the “best person ever” and ends up giving him either the emotional depth of a stone wall or the unstable passion of a teenage heartthrob, Pasolini’s Jesus is a calm figure, someone who has a point to make, someone with compassion but also someone capable of misguided anger, who gets a little too riled up at some points, but who always sees things from a curiously removed standpoint, more like a child than a commander. Irazoqui’s beatitudes are recited as ernest poetry, his Lord’s Prayer given as genuine instruction and his rebuke of the Pharisees given with venomous poignancy. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eyes as though he’s just given his followers a riddle to figure out and eagerly awaits their answer.
Pasolini’s striking black and white imagery and powerful use of closeups add a timeless element to his film. For example, the massacre of Israeli children by Herod after Christ’s birth is by far the most emotionally affecting sequence in any Nativity story I’ve seen, one that made me for almost the first time consider the fear of a woman for her child’s life. This sequence, presented only in long-shots and devoid of emotional punches, save for the beautiful and haunting soundtrack, is one example of the many extraordinary uses of Italian neorealism to enlighten and enrich the gospel account.
By the end of The Gospel According to St. Matthew I was moved and inspired by this Jesus, one who put his words into actions and ultimately suffered for his version of a better world. His message of radical forgiveness was not one of free-passes vs. judgement, but one of bettering humanity to be more fully equipped to deal with social and political issues that inevitably arise. This was a Jesus who meant what he said and did his best to put his words into actions, one who was able to inspire others not to take up dogmatic adherence to rules and standards of discrimination under the disguise of piety, but to live a simple life devoted to helping those who needed it.
Fascinating then, that an outsider to the faith would be able to construct a better, more hopeful and meaningful interpretation of the gospel than a pious believer. Were this the Jesus people believed in I should be less surprised were I to find precious few Christians in heaven and a far greater number of outcasts and non-religious peacekeepers in their place.