“The Gospel According to St. Matthew” is the earliest of the four gospels included in the New Testament (there are quite a few more that were left out). It is also a movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini, a film auteur I didn’t know in my cine-years (1957-1961). Anyway, “St. Matthew” was made in 1964 and by that time I was in Blackfeet country. I was grateful when in the past few years a sophisticated friend turned me on to Pasolini, though I started at the other end of Pasolini’s reputation with “The 120 Days of Sodom” from a novel by de Sade. This sensational 1975 film is what sticks in people’s minds. I haven’t been able to look a cocktail sausage in the eye ever since.
But Pasolini is one of those disconcerting people who refuses to stay in his “platform” (box, category, genre) as the marketing geniuses recommend these days. Even in his most intimate life he was confusingly loved by women but actually loved men. Even in his death, which was murder by his own vehicle running over him, the culprits were believed to be either a hustler, or an extortionist, or anti-communists, or -- you guess.
When people say to me, “I’m not religious” they fail to realize that religion at its core is not a platform either. When one attends a good seminary, it is a revelation to understand that the four gospels (all of them written long after Jesus and not in the language Jesus used) are different from each other because they are different kinds of writing, ranging from straightforward accounts to poetic revelations. Most people have assumed that religion is institutional and that institutions believe that the Bible is literally and immutably true. What these people mean is that they don’t go to church and they don’t believe in God. They consider that a sort of mark of sophistication, a defiance of authority. But that’s far from all there is. In fact, that’s just the foam on the beer. For the real stuff you have to drink much deeper.
Pasolini was much impressed by Tolstoy and shared with him a love of peasants. Though I’m far from being informed about Pasolini, my guess is that he’s an immanentalist -- that is, he sees true sacredness as something that arises from the land, life on that land, and the people who live closest to it. The rest is all speculation and prone to corruption. So “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” is his depiction of the simple people and a man who came among them in a difficult time, giving them ideas about how to live.
The movie is black and white, each frame shot with glowing composition worthy of a master painting. The sound track is a mix of classical symphony and Odetta singing gospel. The people are local and the land, though it was actually Italian is clearly not different from the eroded, rumpled landscape of switchback pathways, square stone buildings, and shallow fishy seas of Jesus’ life.
It’s always a puzzle what sort of person should be cast as Jesus. This time it was a nineteen-year-old Italian/Spanish student, Enrique Irazoqui, His unibrow tops the knife-blade nose of a Sioux. Jesus’ mother in her older version was easily cast: Pasolini’s own mother, her face luminous with pride and love. The younger role was played by Margherita Caruso, hardly the soft little non-threatening figure of many incarnations, but rather a fierce dark-eyed woman with a voluptuous mouth. Like many of the actors, she was locally cast or drawn from among Pasolini’s circle of friends. One thinks of Caravaggio using his friends for models when he depicted some of these same events. Pasolini’s angel is a barely adolescent boy/girl who simply delivers the message without wings, without trumpet, without flying.
This movie is disconcertingly simple. The dialogue is what Matthew reports Jesus said and nothing more. The draped figures simply walk through the land, talking to people. There are many close-ups of attentive faces, as eroded and creased as their surroundings. There is none of the guiding, manipulating, weighting of events through cine-trickery that we’re used to. It’s as though we were there ourselves and trying to understand this revolutionary news. Because of that, it could be shown anywhere, even in a non-Christian land. But these words and events are so familiar that you begin to believe you understand Italian. The movie is on Hulu for free. It’s an excellent Easter meditation.
Now I’m going to switch over to thinking about evolutionary brain theory. It is asserted that perhaps the strongest evolutionary jump forward came from the creation of a little structure in the brain that is attracted to the human face and seeks to understand that other person. An infant will react to a face, even a simple drawing on a paper plate and will rejoice when it sees the face of its mother. This may be why some long so much for the “face of God” and look for faces everywhere. We know this little brain whatsis exists because if it’s destroyed by trauma or infection, the result is a man who thinks his wife is his hat. Perhaps the success of Christianity is due to Christ providing a face for an unknowable God. (Theological writers speak of the masks of God.) People want to see faces like their own -- maybe black, maybe female, maybe gay -- but those who control the institutions are the ones who are usually able to commission the portraits -- until recently.
We are so used to masked actors -- made up, coated with latex, digitally altered, perhaps even totally cartoon -- that it is shocking to see the real and deeply worn faces Pasolini is recording. He was not at all portraying a projection of himself: handsome, well-dressed, swinging along the wide ways of a built environment. Not that he didn’t earn his skills by exposing himself to scorn and danger.
Wonderful as the great cathedrals are, appealing as some actors portraying Jesus can be, powerful as religious institutions grow, contentious as dogma, absorbing as rites, in the end few do not believe in the faces of their beloveds or the shores of a well-loved land. Only those are not religious.