Matthew's Gospel In Rough Beauty

Why make biblical epics? Most filmmakers produce them to entertain and/or get rich. Others aim higher and try to connect contemporary audiences with the ideas and stories upon which our culture is based.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew accomplishes all of this and more. No one knows for certain what inspired the Italian writer-director Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accatone) to create this film, but its single-minded intensity and luminous passion produce a satisfying drama with a unique appeal to Christians.

This is a movie that can make converts. It can be used as a tool of evangelization which grabs its audience emotionally while propagating an orthodox understanding of the faith.

The film was first released in 1964 after winning the Special Jury Prize at that year's Venice Film Festival. At first glance, it doesn't seem to conform to the rest of Pasolini's work. The filmmaker was a well-known Marxist, and his previous movies reflect this point of view.

Not surprisingly, every scene in The Gospel According to St. Matthew bears witness to his commitment to the poor. But the film is dedicated to Pope John XXIII, and much to the horror of Europe's secularist intelligentsia, it also presents the miracles as real events.

The movie was shot entirely on location in the hills of Basilicata in southern Italy. The cast is made up exclusively of nonprofessionals. Most were local peasants although Pasolini used his own mother to play Mary during Jesus' later ministry. The text is taken verbatim from the Gospel. The sequence of events is slightly reordered. Some scenes are shortened. Others are omitted.

One of the first images is a closeup of Mary (Margharita Caruza), whose natural beauty reminds us that the radiant Madonnas of Italian Renaissance masters like Raphael and da Vinci were probably inspired by real-life models. The young woman is pregnant, and her husband Joseph (Marcello Norante), who looks like he actually works with his hands, broods nearby. He walks away as if to abandon her.

Roadside Angel

Immediately, there's a miraculous intervention which the filmmaker makes sure has no rational explanation. A handsome, dark-haired angel appears on the road. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus” (Matthew 1:20-21). Joseph, of course, obeys.

The movie, like Matthew's Gospel, doesn't contain the birth narrative. The three wise men come to worship the Christ child. When they return to their own country without revisiting King Herod, the massacre of the innocents is ordered.

The murderous incident is recreated with realistic, documentary techniques which are used throughout the rest of the film. The slaughter takes place on a rocky hillside. Herod's soldiers attack both on foot and on horseback. They are peasants like their victims but vicious and uncouth. The film techniques focus on the mothers' terror and grief, not the acts of violence themselves. We experience viscerally the sense of evil which permeates the event. The Holy Family is saved by the appearance of the same angel.

As we move into the adulthood of Jesus (Enrique Irazoq), the movie emphasizes the authorities' opposition. The beheading of John the Baptist is a crucial turning point. Unlike most presentations of the incident, Salome isn't depicted as particularly sensuous. She's modestly dressed, and her dancing is almost innocent. The feast takes place in the daytime in an open-air courtyard. Absent is the expected depravity. Yet the prophet's death seems even more calculated and coldblooded than usual.

Love of Children

Jesus sheds a silent tear. The muscles in his face harden as he becomes aware that John's violent death is a precursor of his own. This adds a sense of urgency to the teachings that follow.

Jesus' love of children is highlighted. We see that they adore him, and he brightens whenever they come near. These encounters underline the importance of his teaching that “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). It is also the little ones bearing flowers and branches who first welcome him on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus' appearances before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate are captured in long shots with a hand-held camera. We can clearly hear the Gospel text describing what's happening. But the visual action, viewed from within the crowd, is distant and hard to follow. We feel the remoteness of the religious and political authorities from those they're governing and the unfairness of what they decide.

The crucifixion is shot in a similarly naturalistic fashion. There's no attempt to compose pretty pictures such as are often found in biblical movies and old-master paintings. Our Savior's pain and suffering is real.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew successfully dramatizes Jesus' transcendent powers and his connection to ordinary people. It works as both a human and a spiritual story. We are moved by its rough beauty, and our souls are opened to its truth.

Arts & Culture Correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.