Films about the Christian God are not exactly my cup of tea, being either maudlin or boringly dignified, and almost always badly acted. Who can forget Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, who caused the film to be nicknamed I Was a Teenage Jesus? But two at least are memorable: Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which, as well as being very funny, had the advantage of being widely objected to; and Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, made in 1964 by a Marxist who was frequently accused of blasphemy by the Catholic church and whose attitude to religion was ambivalent.
Its portrait of the Messiah – played by Enrique Irazoqui, a young Spanish economics student with a scraggy beard – is far harsher than the usual soft saint that passes for Jesus. He is, as screenwriter and director Paul Mayersberg has suggested, “a procurer for God”. The actor wears no make-up and nor does the rest of the cast. Judas is played by a truck-driver from Rome (Otello Sestili), and Pasolini’s own mother is the Virgin Mary. They are all amateurs, and the close-ups of their faces make the story seem more real than usual. The bleak hillside scenery of Calabria, where the film was made, gives the film a primitive feel that is augmented by grainy cinematography. The soundtrack – Prokofiev, Bach, Mozart and even Billie Holiday – surprises us but can be off-putting, considering the naturalism elsewhere. What Pasolini clearly wanted was a believable gospel, armed with real people, and the glories of the music sometimes work against this, since sublimity is not what Pasolini had in mind. He did say, however, that he was not interested in deconsecrating: “That is a fashion I hate. I want to ‘reconsecrate’ as much as possible.”
It is a stark film (someone has described it as one-dimensional), but with clear-headed interpretative qualities that avoid the usual cliches. This Christ was a political animal, angry at social injustice. The silent cry from the cross is believable and the miracles avoid any kind of underlining comment – they just happen, with not a special effect in sight.
All this puzzled the Catholic church greatly. But it was decided to approve of the film, even though Pasolini had vastly annoyed the papacy with his episode in 1962’s RoGoPaG (a compilation of four satirical films by different directors) with his parody of the deposition from the cross, and had been given a suspended prison sentence for “publicly undermining the religion of the state”. (He had also been expelled from the communist party, for alleged homosexuality.)
A planned life of St Paul never materialised; instead he made the less ambitious but more popular Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights, and the more intellectual, poetic and, at times, portentous Hawks and Sparrows, Theorem, Pigsty and Medea. He never acquired the purity of The Gospel again, and Salo (1975), his last film, went in the opposite direction – a tortured scream against fascism that almost succeeded in being fascist itself. He was a loved and sometimes hated figure of Italian culture so that his murder, almost certainly by a teenage hustler, was, and still is, interpreted by many as some sort of political conspiracy.