• 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


    Monday, August 28, 2023

    Data Visualization: How Does Pasolini Abridge Matthew's Gospel?

    Click here for larger/better resolution version of the image.

    Earlier in the year I was writing a chapter on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) for a book due out next year hopefully about some of the films from the Arts and Faith Top 100

    The words spoken in the film are almost entirely directly taken from Matthew's Gospel, but not all of the Gospel is included. Many sections are omitted or abbreviated. Moreover, Pasolini rearranges the text so some incidents/ speeches occur in a different place in the film. 

    I made a list of which parts of the Gospels appear in various film many years ago (free download) and Jeffrey Staley and Richard Walsh produced similar but more detailed versions of this information for their 2007 book "Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination" (my review) a completely reworked version of which was published last year. 

    However, I wanted to get a better feel for how Pasolini edits, abridges and rearranges the material and while those resources are useful I wanted to get something more immediate. Given my day job is creating data visualisations, I decided to have a quick go with the data about Pasolini's movie. Jeffrey and Richard were kind enough to allow me to use their research and to provide it in an electronic format. 


    My intention was to plot where the cited/dramatised incidents from the text occur in the film. In order to do this I began by tidying and making a number of amendments to their data. There was the odd error and there was one passage where the wording is used twice in the text and I felt the other verse seemed to be where Pasolini would more naturally be drawing from. I also gave a more detailed breakdown of the Sermon on The Mount and where there was only a time stamp for a section of teaching, I added in specific times. This was a challenge as Staley and Walsh had used a different release of the film than any of mine own.

    Visual elements

    One of the things I wanted to examine was how Pasolini handled the five main teaching blocks we find in the text. Scholars have noted how Matthew concentrates Jesus' teaching into five main blocks and for over a century it has been suggested that this is to associate Jesus and the gospel with Moses and the five books of the Torah. So I shaded these areas in grey. I probably should've mentioned that on the diagram itself, but I couldn't quite work out where to do that and, at least at the time, I was hoping to do an improved version.

    From a data visualisation point of view there is one thing that is particularly unusual about this chart which is that "time" is on the y-axis, whereas nearly always time goes on the x-axis. I decided to do it this way for two reasons. Firstly, because in a sense both axes are a variation on time. The y-axis is time through the film, but really the x-axis represents time to. Perhaps we could call it time spent reading through the gospel. It's not linear or regular time, but it's not totally out of keeping with the convention.

    The second reason, however, was that having plotted it both ways this felt like the more natural choice. While the time through the movie might be more regular, the text is more original. It represents a reality that exists before the film comes and rearranges it. The sense of progress is progress through the text. Similarly, I think the various attempts to plot the time sequence in Pulp Fiction (1994) fail because the people producing them don't want to break the rule that time in minutes/should be on the y-axis. But this is a case of "it depends" albeit in a situation where the convention is dominant.

    Notes on style

    Many of the most popular data visualisations use quite lively colours and style. When that works, it really works and it's no surprise that the ones that are able to leverage colour effectively go on to become the most popular. 

    The downside of this, however, is that people think effective / good data visualization has to have lots of colour. That's not true. Indeed many dataviz experts like Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic advise us to "resist the urge to use color for the sake of being colorful" ("Storytelling with Data", p.117). 

    Here, it felt like colour didn't really have a key role to play. I could perhaps emphasise one particular section, or assign different colours to the type of material, and perhaps that's a job for a future iteration of the visual, perhaps one that is being presented. 

    Instead, I decided to lean in to the lack of colour. The film is of course magnificently and proudly black and white (if you have the colourised abomination you should destroy it before it burns out your eyes and shrivels your soul). Moreover regardless of the excesses appearing on screen, Pasolini kept his titles sparse and plain. 

    So I stuck with black and white, or rather black and light grey. The off-white background is the same hue featured in Pasolini's opening credits, and I used the Galatia SIL font as this seemed like the closest approximation to Pasolini's original font that I could find for free. I'm weighing up doing a couple of other version of these and I'm thinking of doing those using colour and a more modern font. But here, I've essentially tried to reproduce the film's simple aesthetic. It's part of what makes the film so powerful.


    As I've mentioned above I'm still wondering about doing a more advanced version of the above. Ideally I would have liked it to be possible to hover over the dots and see the name and reference to each incident. In terms of tools I tend to use Power BI, but here I used Excel, partly because I didn't think anyone would look at it unless they already had a Power BI account and also because Power Bi doesn't let you use custom fonts. There are a couple of ways round the latter, but the former is a real deal breaker. 

    Annoyingly, though, while the Excel file version of this document does allow you to see some info as a tool-tip, you can't customise it, the way you can in PowerBi. So maybe I'll return to this data if I ever get around to picking up Tableau or Deneb or R or something where I can make the interactivity show online.

    The other limitation is that the quality is not as high as I'd hope. The higher quality version of this image is just over 800 by 900 pixels, but even then the dots look a little pixely in places. I also need to find somewhere to put that note about the darker grey strips being the author's five teaching blocks.

    Did it work?

    The main point I make about all this in the essay is that whereas Jesus has five chunks of teaching, Pasolini essentially reduces this down to two, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and the Olivet discourse (Matt 23-25). However this visualisation doesn't really bear this out. While both sections feel like they take a long time, in reality they only take 5½ and 6½ minutes respectively, only 10% of the film combined. Plus while Pasolini's second discourse includes almost every word from chapter 23, he omits most of 24-25.

    This move from five to two seems really clear from viewing the film, so it's arguably a bit of a failure of the graph that it doesn't really bring that out. In a future version I'd want to itemise the seven woes a bit more. That would create more presence on the chart, but I don't think it will solve the problem. I need to think a bit more about that  – it's why this visualisation won't be appearing in my chapter on it. 

    That said, though, the point of the visual wasn't to reinforce a point I already felt comes through strongly in the film, it was to give me much more of a feel of how Pasolini jumps about in and abridges his source. And in that sense I think it really helps. For example, even with the briefest glance it's clear that Pasolini does not adopt a linear-but-abridged approach to the text. He moves material around. Much easier to see here than by sifting through a list of chapters and verses. I'm considering doing another one of these for The Jesus Film (1979) which takes a similar approach to Luke's gospel. I have no idea whether it jumps around or not.

    There are other benefits. One point I found particularly interesting, is to see what happened to Matthew's second discourse. Pasolini essentially merges it into part of his calling of the disciples sequence. It's a clever move because he manages to not only preserve the "revolutionary" way Matthew has Jesus make a single clear proposition, but also maintain a plausible dramatic narrative in terms of Jesus' growing support. He calls his men, and teaches them, before turning up after just his baptism to a huge crowd on the top of a mountain.

    It also demonstrates that Pasolini jumps back four times in the film, but for decreasing amount of time and material on each subsequent occasion. Also noticeable that the birth and Passion narratives take place in completely straight-forward fashion. It's only the ministry where some things change. But it's also arguable that what Pasolini is doing is jumping forward, rather than backwards. I might need to think a bit more about that.

    Over to you

    Having not only gone to the effort of producing this, I've now spent quite a while creating this blog post about it as well. So needless to say I'd love it not to be all in vain. So feel free to like and share and use if you're using it in classes. Please just keep the attribution to Staley and Walsh as well as mentioning me as its originator.

    More importantly do you have any observations that come from the chart? If so, I'd love to hear them. Please put something in the comments below.

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