In some ways, this film is exactly what it says on the tin; it’s a dramatization of the Gospel of St. Matthew, adapted in Italian neorealist style by Pier Paolo Pasolini (who also directs). Pasolini – a lapsed Catholic – had gotten bored in a hotel and read the Bible, and been so captivated by the Gospel of Matthew that he decided to stage it exactly as it was – using exactly the same words and plot points that had caught his eye. But for me – a similarly lapsed Catholic – it was the neorealism bits that resonated the most.
I have to confess to dozing off a time or two during this; but notably, my drowsy moments seemed to happen when there was a lot of talking. After weekly Masses as a child, I am probably wired to associate recitations from the Gospels with boredom and sleepiness, having been woken up early on a Sunday and shepherded to church, and not understanding the priest’s sermons and looking out the windows half-awake and impatiently wanting to go outside and play or go home and sleep. I’ve heard those exact words spoken again and again, have heard those stories again and again.
But I haven’t seen them this way. And it’s the wordless scenes which caught my attention and woke me up, again and again.
One example: the very opening sequence, with Margherita Caruso as Mary and Marcello Morante as Joseph sadly staring back and forth at each other. The camera cuts from shots of one to the other, head-and-shoulders the only things visible, about three or four times – and then we get a wider shot of Mary, hugely pregnant, and understand viscerally the reason Joseph looks so upset. We don’t need words, we get the context.
Or the scene following His Baptism, when Jesus retreats to the desert for 40 days; Enrique Irazoqui, the non-actor who plays Jesus, is kneeling in solitude and stillness; hands raised, his white robe stark against the deep black of the landscape as the camera tracks closer and closer until we can see his face.
But even though Pasolini leans on the visuals for some of the storytelling, he doesn’t give in to elaborate special effects; his imagery is simple, but raw. When Jesus heals a leper, there’s no thunderbolt or light flash; there’s just a man with a disfigured face, and Jesus laying His hand over it – and then removing His hand to reveal a healed face. The Angel (Rossana Di Rocco) just appears now and then, stepping into camera; there’s no thunderbolt or trumpet fanfare, she’s just there suddenly, when before she wasn’t.
Speaking of fanfares – the music Pasolini uses is inspired as well. He chose music from several genres; his only concern was that it be religious or spiritual in some fashion. So the soundtrack jumps from Bach’s Mass in B Minor to the Jewish Kol Nidre, to a passage from the Congolese Missa Luba. The Adoration of the Magi is set to the sound of Odetta Holmes’ singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”. A portion of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevesky Cantata scores another scene.
And Pasolini also has a good eye for picking the right face for each part. Irazoqui was an economics student when Pasolini cast him as Jesus; after the film, Irazoqui only had minor roles in three other films and then went back to his studies, going on to become an expert in teaching computers to play chess. Several of the apostles were played by writers and philosophers Pasolini admired. And in a slightly Oedipal move, Pasolini cast his own mother Susanna as the older version of Mary. No one’s performance is groundbreaking; but they don’t really need to be. They all somehow look exactly right for their roles.
The Bible passage about God speaking in a “still small voice” isn’t in Matthew; rather, it’s in the Book of Kings. But it’s a verse I’m thinking of connected to this film; the Gospel isn’t just the words, it’s the things we see. The things we see don’t have to be super-impressive; Jesus can look like a Spanish college student, His mother can look like any Italian nonna. Things can be simple. And – that’s kind of the point.