In this edition of the forgotten, Andrew Buckle (The Film Emporium, Graffiti with Punctuation) explains why The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964) is one of greatest biblical epics he has have ever seen. Thanks for sharing this film with us Andrew.[Ed]
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is one of the finest biblical epics I have ever seen, and while the Marxist, atheist, homosexual auteur had no religious affiliations, he channels his unlikely concoction of ideologies into this undeniable masterpiece. Having first watched this film when I was studying at university, as a companion piece to Pasolini’s Accatone, which was part of the subject, I revisited it again recently in preparation for this article.
I was discussing biblical epics with friends and Martin Scorsese’s masterful The Last Temptation of Christ was brought up. I mentioned an alternative, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a film that has all of the significant biblical events but it conveys them in a much more gritty and grounded sense, with many – the last supper, walking on water – portrayed like just regular occurrences. They are given no stylistic heightening or dramatic emphasis, which is very interesting. Though hardly a ‘forgotten’ film, it doesn’t get mentioned very often.
Neo-realism can be defined through a number of characteristics, in particular the shooting on location (which begun development of light-weight cameras) and the absence of studio lighting, instead utilising the available natural light of the location. Due to the poor quality of the film stock, neo-realist films often have a grainy, documentary-esque appearance, almost acting as a witness to contemporary Italy as it unfolds – a natural place marked by the remnants of violence and destruction.
The typical narrative consists of casual, everyday events featuring dramatisation and ‘dead time’ and lacks a conclusive resolution. Neo-realist filmmakers also often use non-professional actors, relying on improvisation; leaving the process open to chance forcing time to take on flexibility. Spatial wholeness is also created through the use of the long shot, the limited use of the close-up and minimal cutting. This is a series of cinematic techniques adopted by some of the earliest neorealist masterpieces like Rome, Open City, Paisan, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D and while Pasolini’s film no doubt utilises a lot of this language, it is his abundant use of close-up that makes for the most fascinating diversion from these observations.
In neo-realism, from Deleuze, “the sensory-motor connections are now valid only by virtue of the upsets that affect, loosen, unbalance, or uncouple them.” These new signs refer to very varied images, sometimes everyday banality, sometimes exceptional circumstances, but above all, subjective images, memories of childhood, sound and visual dreams or fantasies, where the character does not act without seeing himself acting. I argue that the early sequence of the film, following Jesus’s birth, is filmed almost like a subjective dreamscape.
As the Three Wise Men and surrounding children walk down the mountain path to see Mary and Joseph and the new-born Jesus, there is a cross-cutting between a medium to long shot of these approaching figures and Mary holding the child (adhering to all the common modern representation of the Virgin Mary, she is attractive and virginal and wrapped in a shawl that covers her head). At times the camera seems to float in one position, moving very slightly, but allowing the figures to first enter the frame and then exit again at the other side. A haunting vocal score repeating the words ‘sometimes I feel like a motherless child’ backs this montage sequence of paralleled images and optical sensations. It is a compelling intersection of signs, as we are drawn into Pasolini’s camera, but at the same time are seduced by what we hear.
As the figures approach the position of Mary and Joseph, they slowly move toward the still camera, filling the entire frame and adopting positions of varying levels (some are standing, while others are crouching). There is a prolonged close-up of Joseph, then Mary. After handing the child over to the first Wise Man, the camera zooms into the faces of these men, and then lingers on the child. The montage that follows is of smiling children in the crowd united by this birth. By removing the diegetic sound from the image, Pasolini, working in the shadow of neo-realism in the 1960’s, expertly creates complication in our mode of sensory-perception by subordinating time from the movement-image to incur and paint a subjective, dream-like state. These pure optical and sound images, and the fixed shot and the montage-cut, imply a progression beyond the movement-image. Following the neo-realist directors, Pasolini became one of the masters of this style, and while a gruelling watch The Gospel According to St. Matthew has become culturally significant.
By Andrew Buckle