The Passion of Pasolini

 o The Gospel According to St. Matthew

1964 / B&W / 137 Min. / Italian with subtitles
Pier Paolo Pasolini, dir.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was an Italian filmmaker who was also a poet, essayist, marxist and homosexual. But he was in all things an outsider. He was shunned by the Catholic bourgeoisie for his marxist views and his homosexuality. The marxists shunned him for not toeing the line in his philosophy. And his writings on film and literary theory were often dismissed by the intelligentsia because of his lack of academic credentials and a perceived lack of rigor in his work. It is, therefore, in many ways ironic that one of his most successful films is this adaptation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Yet the principal force in Pasolini's life, to which all others were subordinate, was passion. And in all of literature there is no greater example of unrationalized passion than the story of Christ and his death.

 o "...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
            than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (19:24)

The film was shot among the hills of Basilicata in southern Italy. The setting was the villages of the poor, and only non-professionals were used as actors. The director's own mother played Mary at the time of Jesus's crucifixion. Pasolini made some changes to the traditional version of the Gospel, reordering the sequence of events, shortening some scenes and omitting others altogether, though he used the text verbatim. However, by his use of the Italian poor, with their wrinkled faces and their humble surroundings, he emphasized the aspects of St. Matthew's story that were most appealing to his own marxist sensibilities. When Christ says to his disciples, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," standing among real poverty and not some Hollywood fabrication, the words are brought into bold relief. Pasolini was never heavy-handed in his treatment, simply allowing the text to speak for itself.

Pasolini's style is that of a poet, which of course he was. Thus the scenario is paced more by the concerns of poetry than those of narrative. The camera often pauses on faces or scenes, forcing the viewer to reflect on them. When used sparingly this can be very effective, but when done too often it loses its value and can become tiresome. Like almost all of his works, this film could stand some editing. And the low-budget miracles would have been better left to their role as allegories; in the film they too often come off as mere photographic tricks.

 o "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (23:27)

This film bears a connection to Christ's story that so many other films have been unable to provide. There is a sincerity here that is as refreshing as it is unexpected, coming from a person of Pasolini's politics and habits. While the elites of Church and state, whether capitalist or marxist, often speak of the poor and make use of them in the pursuit of their agendas, one rarely senses any genuine concern. This was equally true in Christ's time, and part of his message was a warning to those who took it upon themselves to settle matters of faith and morality. It is a message that should give pause to many in our own time, as they venture to prescribe remedies for those whose powerlessness places them at the mercy of others.

-- Robert Stewart