• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    Thoughts on Pasolini's Matthew

    I've been working my way through the Visual Bible Version of Matthew's Gospel, but onSunday I sat down to watch the superior, if not exactly word for word, version of The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1964. You can read my previous comments on this film here and listen to my review of the film at my Jesus Films Podcast. Here, I want to record a few new observations that I made in watching it on Sunday, which I don't recall being made by others anywhere else aside from some of the elements this film incorporates from the Gospel of John. Some of those (I now recall) are also mentioned in Jeffrey Staley and Richard Walsh's "Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination: A Handbook to Jesus on DVD". Apologies if I have inadvertently borrowed from anyone else.

    It's often said that one of the primary views of Jesus that we see in this film is of the back of his head as he marches round the Holy Land shouting his words of wisdom over his shoulder. So it's interesting that early on the film gives us a similar shot of Joseph. Having been visited by and angel who tells him to marry Mary, he heads back to her house to let her know and the camera follows behind him up the path.

    Speaking of this path its used a few times quite effectively. Not only do we see Joseph initially leave Mary via it, and then return, but later on the adult Jesus will leave Mary by the same road, shot from the same angle, only he will not return. Pasolini rearranges the gospel order here so that this scene follows straight after Jesus claims that those who follow him are his mother and brothers. In fact the cut happens after a close up of Mary. We then see Jesus leaving and then realise that the location has also changed. Initially it appears to be from the mother and brothers scene, but then it emerges that it is a prelude to his rejection at Nazareth.

    This sequence also parallels Joseph's opening actions. Joseph leaves Mary, goes to a spot in Nazareth and observes the children playing before hearing God speak through the angel. Jesus also leaves Mary in the same manner and ends up in the same distinctive part of Nazareth. There's an interlude whilst Jesus is rejected by the villagers, and instructs the Rich Young Man, but then we get the "let the little children come to me" scene. Jesus has also seen the children play.

    One of the things that is usually mentioned when discussing this film is, of course, the music, but I'd not noticed before that several of the pieces of music used repeat two or three times throughout the film. One of my friends had some great observations on this, but I didn't fully get it, so I'm going to wait until he's finished his dissertation and see if he'll write something down on it. Watch this space.

    Whilst Matthew's Gospel never mentions that Jesus is the cousin of John the Baptist, the film implies it. Having met with John's disciples once, he encounters them in the same place and is informed of his death. Both John's disciples and Jesus have tears on their faces at this point, which is perhaps not that visible on the small screen. Again Pasolini tweaks the order here so that Jesus' "Let the dead bury their own dead" occurs at the end of this scene. In a similar fashion Matthew's Gospel gives no indication that John son of Zebedee used to be a follower of the Baptist, but whilst the Baptist is shown preaching we see the other John by his side, as in the fourth gospel.

    It also struck me, perhaps for the first time, just how Jewish the 7 woes directed at the Pharisees are. Whilst many of the things Jesus says are illustrating the wider point (that they are hypocrites) some of the examples are particularly obscure - swearing by the temple/gold of the temple, cleaning the outside of cups, and so on. The way the film abridges this section tends to emphasise the point I think.

    As Jesus' death draws near, he is anointed by the woman, and it's interesting that it's Judas who voices the objection to her actions. Again this is as in John, rather than the more general "disciples" we find in Matthew, but whereas John focuses on Judas to besmirch him, here it could be read as the thing that drives Judas to betray him. Unhappy with Jesus' actions he heads straight to the Jewish leaders, who he watched very closely during their debate in Chapter 21. That said it could also be read as supporting the Johannine position, not least because of Judas' smile when he hears how much he will be paid for his work.

    Lastly, again as with John's Gospel, we also see John the disciple at he foot of the cross comforting Jesus' mother. We're also given Jesus' trial before Pilate in a series of shots taken from John's point of view, intercut with extreme close ups of John's eyes.

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    • At 6:42 pm, October 18, 2010, Anonymous marc said…

      this is a link to a remarkable story(interview) of a conversion caused by this film in a man who was to become a priest and human rights activist


      pasolini's movies are hypnotic but i never really got that "120 days of sodom" thing - i mean really...still, they can be like having your eyeballs washed after the sensory pummeling hollywood puts us thru these days

    • At 5:31 pm, November 02, 2010, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for this marc. I'll have to check it out.



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