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Il Vangelo Secondo San Mateo

Review by John D. O'Brien, S.J.

(The Gospel According to Saint Matthew)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini, 137 min., Italy, 1964.
Starring: Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, Susanna Pasolini
Music: Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Bacalov, Odetta.


In the Judean countryside, Jesus begins to preach, attracting disciples and sometimes multitudes. His is stern and demanding: “I have not come to bring peace but the sword”. He is also in a hurry, constantly moving from place to place. His teachings often criticize the powers that be, which attracts the attention of the Pharisees, elders and chief priests. He is arrested, beated, tried and crucified. Afterwards he appears to his disciples and gives them instructions.

Film History

Filmed in the style of Italian neo-realism, which is stark, gritty, and believed that ordinary people, rather than actors, were best suited to play characters (not any character, but the one they were born to play), the film was the creation of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a controversial director who made some 25 films. He was an atheist Marxist, whose personal life was chaotic (and he was murdered in mysterious circumstances), but his film saw the light after he was staying in a hotel room during a conference in Assisi. While there, he found a copy of the Gospels, and “read them straight through.” He would later say that the notion of basing a film on one of them “threw in the shade all the other ideas for work that I had in my head.” The resulting film was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, and won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1964.

Spiritual Reflection

What to make of Pasolini’s telling of the Gospel? This film turns our conventional notions of this story upside down. It avoids melodrama and overacting, but is direct, spare and minimalist. The actors do not look what we imagine the characters to look like (very few beards). Their speech is rendered dispassionately – uncharacteristically for Italians – without animation or expression (mostly). And the pace is somehow different: the camera dwells on faces longer than we are used to, directing our attention to their expressions, to their interiority? At other times the speed of speech is disconcerting. For example, Jesus races through the Sermon on the Mount, so fast you have to pay attention to keep up. The transitions between scenes are also abrupt, as is the unrolling of dramatic action. The angel is suddenly just there. The apostles jump off boats and follow. The leper who was disfigured is instantly healed, with a camera cut to his clean face so sudden it would be comical were it not for a sense the director could have used dramatic special effects, but chose to show the miracle as the Gospel tells it: “and immediately his leprosy was cleansed”. The abruptness continues through the narrative, and includes even the ending. Before we know it, the film is over. Just like that.

By being unconventional, even contrarian, in the style of his story-telling – above all in avoiding the sentimentalism and dramatic sweep of so many other Jesus movies – Pasolini’s film accomplishes a few things very well. First, it reveals the power of the words themselves. Its minimalism allows the words to take over from spectacle. We are not distracted by cinematic “interpretations” on the part of the director or actors (did he get that scene right? That’s not how I imagined that line!). It focuses our attention on the mystery of each scene and the words that capture it. The words of the Gospel are meant to be prominent: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

So what do we see and hear in this Gospel? That Jesus’ message is not sugar-coated, but a revolutionary call to conversion and discipleship. His exhortations have an urgency about them while he is brimming with a kind of contemplative intensity. He calls people to repentance and to follow him. He preaches a way of life that is demanding – the Beatitudes are beautiful but not an easy recipe for living. He calls out the Pharisees in no uncertain terms. The Lord essentially presents us with a choice: to follow the way of the world and of its captivity to selfishness, or the way of dying to selfishness, and of following him under his banner of love.

This is the primary invitation this week: having examined our past, it’s time to take stock of our present. What is the fundamental choice that God is offering us? To follow Christ will necessarily involve a transformation of how I have been living before. It will include a commitment of life. Do I desire this? Am I attracted, perhaps despite myself, to follow him in a certain way? Do I have the courage to face this invitation? What are the stakes? What could be the losses? What is to be gained? In short, what is Jesus actually asking of me right now?

These are good questions to bring to our prayer this week. To truly enter into them, we can meditate on certain of his scenes and words. Again, no special effects, no overdramatizing is needed. Just words and faces, which in their understatement, hold and convey something far more powerful, more spiritual, and ultimately, more personal.

Pasolini’s film has a basic, rare quality of elemental Jesus to it. But his brand of neo-realism is not careless. There is studied composition of each shot. There is balance in the beautiful black and white chiaroscuro of each frame. There is variety to his cinematography: kinetic, moving camera, wide establishing shots of each new scene, lots of mediums and close-ups. The music is achingly beautiful and even unexpected a few times. He captures the reality of the holy land, though shot in Italy, with everyday images of donkeys, wells, people in the marketplace. Above all, it’s the beauty of the faces to which he returns, again and again.

Jesus’ ministry is a slow crescendo in tone, from a restraint early on to more animated exhortations by the end. His figure remains just beyond our grasp, and perhaps that’s how it should be. He is always more than we can contain and categorize. But is he attractive to us in some deeper way? Again, to what does he invite? This is the question to ask ourselves post-Pasolini.

Meditation Points

1. Imagine the three Persons of the Trinity looking down upon the earth. See the entire span of the world, with people in it of every race and age: some birthing, living and dying. Some at peace, others at war and killing each other; some are laughing, some crying, some healthy, some sick. See it all, and then listen to it all (use your inner eyes and ears). The Trinity sees the direction that humanity is going, and makes the decision to send the Second Person as a human being. In the fullness of time, they send the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth… What is the state of the world today?

2. Read Luke 2:1-14, the nativity. Make a mental representation of the place and enter the scene. Consider a) the persons involved, each in their turn. Be present personally to them, after the birth of Jesus. b) what each of them are saying; c) what they are doing and why they are doing it. What is God doing in all of this?

3. Pray on John 1:35-39 or Matt 4:18-22, the calling of the apostles. Let the scene come alive and consider each phrase in turn. Don’t force your prayer, but be attentive to the word or image that might strike you in particular.  How might God be calling me to discipleship?

Begin all meditations with the prayer recommended by St. Ignatius. Ask God our Lord for the grace “that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be ordered purely to his service and praise.”

And close with an “Our Father”.


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