DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW, THE (IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO) (director/writer: Pier Paolo Pasolini; cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli; editor: Nino Baragli; music: Luis E. Bacalov; cast: Enrique Irazoqui (Jesus Christ), Mario Socrate (John the Baptist), Susana Pasolini (Older Virgin Mary), Margherita Caruso (Younger Virgin Mary), Marcello Morante (Joseph), Ferruccio Nuzzo (Matthew); Runtime: 142; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alfredo Bini; Foothill Video; 1964-Italy/France-dubbed in English)

 
"A quirky version of Matthew's story, one that was closer in accord with fundamentalist beliefs than Marxist tenets."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Poet, Marxist, homosexual and atheist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini's ("Teorema"/"Mamma Roma"/"Oedipus Rex") Messiah film, shot in a cinema verite semi-documentary style, won the top prize at the 1964 Venice Film Festival. It's dedicated to Pope John XXIII and is filmed in black and white; the small film goes against the grain of the usual Christ film as an epic and offers a straightforward literal translation of at least half the text of the gospel. The underlying strength is in its expressed social anger and view of Jesus as a revolutionist, but the miracles go by unexplained, it's plodding at times and some of the editing is sloppy; the nonprofessional actors put their heart into their words and fare better than professionals did in many other Jesus films, the desert-like southern Italian landscape makes for a good substitute for the Holy Land, the long silences are used even more effectively than are the spoken words, the soundtrack cleverly blends in Bach, "Missa Luba," Odetta (the folk singer singing "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"), Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevesky Cantata," and Billie Holiday, and in its simplicity the familiar story remains faithful to its biblical text both literally and spiritually.

Cast as Christ is Enrique Irazoqui, a prissy Spanish college student, who wrote a thesis about Pasolini's novel "Ragazzi di vita." He portrays Christ as a delicate humble man of the people who was driven by his inner faith and who took great pains to preach his simple message of love and tolerance as the Son of God to the receptive peasant population. A restless Jesus grows impatient with those in power who are the oppressors and who stain their religion with hypocrisy, as the sincere preacher grows increasingly more passionate and filled with anger at those who stand in the way of progress. The director's own mother, Susanna Pasolini, a devout Catholic, is cast as the older Virgin Mary.

I was impressed with this offbeat version of the Passion play for its effective recreation of the period and somewhat moved by the natural way the story unfolded with an ardent Christ and his gentle band of radicals trying to change the world (but not as much as many other critics seemed to have been, as I failed to completely see Jesus as a social outcast preaching a Marxist message to the masses--something the director said he aimed to achieve). For me, it was a quirky version of Matthew's story, one that was closer in accord with fundamentalist beliefs than Marxist tenets-- that has an unwavering piously bent Jesus just itching to get himself crucified. 

Pasolini was not pleased that the American version renamed the title by calling Matthew a saint.

REVIEWED ON 9/5/2007        GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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