• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, May 10, 2019

    Delving Deeper into Il vangelo secondo Matteo - Part 1

    This is a more off-the-top-of-my-head post, so please don't quote me on any of it just yet!
    I've written various pieces on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) over the years but recently I've been feeling the need to re-examine some of the scholarship about the film. Mainly this is driven by the realisation that whilst many of my favourite works on the subject Jesus on Film raise the issue of neorealism, important things are being omitted. Take, for example, the impact of Antonio Gramsci on Pasolini's films. A quick scan of the indices of Tatum; Stern, Jefford and Debona; Walsh; Baugh; Reinhartz; and others reveals not one mention of Gramsci (though in some cases his would not necessarily be within the work's scope.

    Part of the problem stems, I think, from the distance between those scholars approaching the film from a biblical studies point-of-view, and other writers on Pasolini's cinema, but it also stems from the distance between Pasolini's time and our own, and between Pasolini's location and North America where the above writers all come from. For example, neorealism was very much a mid-to-late 1940s movement. It continued in the the early 1950, but, having never been hugely popular in Italy itself, fizzled out. It proved hugely influential, not least on subsequent Italian cinematic movements, but across the world. By the time Pasolini was directing his Gospel of Matthew it was over, but Italian cinema was entering another vintage period heralded by the likes of Fedrico Fellini, Michaelangelo Antonio and the like. This second period tended also to be in black and white - the most obvious similarity between the two sets of films and the greatest contrast between its American contemporaries, and indeed the cinema that most people today are familiar with. Clearly other aspects were in continuity with neorealism but have since fallen out of fashion and so again, conflating these two distinct periods is somewhat understandable.

    The questions that come back to me are then, firstly to what extent does Il vangelo secondo Matteo exhibit distinctives of neorealsim; and, why does Pasolini do so?

    There is, it seems to me a modern parallel, twenty four years ago Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and a number of other directors created and swore to uphold Dogme 95's Vow of Chasity. Festen, The Idiots, Italian for Beginners and a host of other films came out adhering to Dogme's rules and for a while the movement was much discussed and influenced all kinds of filmmakers even if they didn't take a purist approach to it. If you've seen Vinterberg or von Trier's more recent work you'll have noticed that they have moved on. Melancholia's special effects were not part of the manifesto. So if a director today was again to take up the rules of Dogme it would be worthy of closer consideration.

    This is essentially what Pasolini does. Il vangelo was released 18 years after Roberto Rossellini's pivotal Roma, città aperta (1946). It could possibly be nostalgic, retro, an homage, a pastiche or something else entirely neo-neorealism) but more needs to be said.

    And so my question is, why? I hope to get into that in a future post. And Antonio Gramsci, because I think he provides some of the answers.

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