Pasolini's Gospel and the
depiction of Jesus on film

by Chris Dashiell

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-75), poet and novelist, got involved in the movies by helping various directors with their screenplays - what we would call script doctoring today. He adopted the neorealist" method when he started directing his own films. Accatone ('61) and Mamma Roma ('62) are low-budget pictures using mostly non-professional actors (although the latter starred Anna Magnani in one of her best performances). They were controversial, unflinching in their portrayal of poverty, and less sentimental than anything Rossellini or De Sica had done. But Pasolini discovered that neorealism didn't satisfy his creative desires. It wasn't quite clear at first what was missing, but by discarding the tenets of that influential movement he was eventually able to find out.

What was lacking was the mythological dimension, a way of seeing things that looked beyond the immediate material reality of life to stories and symbols that expressed an archetypal awareness of human nature and destiny. This was what he had experienced as a child in visits to his mother's home region of Friula, reflected in the tales and customs of the peasantry in that northern Italian province. This helps to explain the paradox of Pasolini's decision to make a film based on the Gospel of St. Matthew. He had been a Marxist since his early 20s, but his was by no means a rigid, doctrinaire approach. His art took root in a love for working class people, especially peasants, rather than in ideology. His films, like his poetry, are open-ended in their themes and concerns, allowing different and even conflicting world views to have free play. This generous attitude toward his own creative process gained him few friends on either the right or the left. In 1964, then, Pasolini, after visiting Israel and deciding that it would be too difficult within his means to film there, went to Calabria, in southern Italy, and set to work in that hilly arid region, to make a film about Christ.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is, just as it says, taken from the first book of the New Testament, with no textual borrowings or embellishments. The film plays it straight, a simple strategy with an extraordinary effect. Most of the actors were peasants recruited by the director from country villages. Without elaborate sets or costumes, the picture uses parts to stand in for the whole - tall conical hats for the priestly caste, flat medieval-looking metal helmets for Roman soldiers, little Italian towns built into hillsides for the ancient sites in Judaea. All this, strangely enough, along with the overall low-budget look of the film, makes the experience more rather than less convincing.

The movie opens with a dismayed, bald-headed Joseph staring at the pregnant Mary, then walking away. He lies down on a hillside, disturbed, and then hears the first words of the film, from an angel, a rustic-looking girl in white, telling him not to fear because the child is conceived of the Holy Spirit. The sequence is characteristic of the film as a whole. Pasolini cuts out almost all of the Gospel's narration, presenting the action and the dialogue without commentary. In the first section (prior to Jesus' ministry) and the last (the Passion), there are therefore long moments of quiet where the images tell the story. This lends the picture a meditative quality. It also changes the way the story is experienced. The narration, with its familiar authoritative cadences, tends to steer the reader into a traditional encounter with received truth. Without it, the action and dialogue is allowed to take on some immediacy, and that - despite the fact that most have heard these words many times - makes the story seem less familiar, which creates an opening for the mind to perceive the material directly from the film.

A similar effect is created through the depiction of Joseph as an ordinary-looking middle aged man. Whatever images the viewer may have previously had of this figure, they were bound to be shrouded in a vaguely reverential cloud, a cloud that is suddenly dispelled by the earthy presence of the actor. This in fact holds true for almost all of the performers - the various and striking facial characteristics defy stereotype. Starkly photographed in black and white, the look of the disciples, the Pharisees, or the elderly Mary (played by the director's mother), break the viewer's connection to habitual images and ideas, effectively humanizing them while at the same time not tampering with the text in any way. For if Pasolini had put a new interpretation on the Gospel, the performers would be merely expressing that point of view. Or if he had attempted to give the players a more traditional appearance, the film would become just another Bible movie, with no way for the viewer to get past the weight of centuries of received thought and imagery surrounding the story. Instead, by fulfilling the simplest of goals - a direct version of the Gospel - he created a truly religious film, while at the same time bringing up fascinating problems of contrast between the depiction of Christ in story and Christianity as a belief system and institution.

Pasolini chose a Spanish student, a non-actor, named Enrique Irazoqui to play Jesus. This turns out to be a very fortunate choice. With his large eyebrows, intensely expressive mouth and eyes, and oval-shaped face, Irazoqui neither conforms to sterotype nor blatantly violates it. Even the fact that his voice had to be dubbed by someone else becomes an advantage - the dubbed voice sets Jesus intangibly apart from the other characters, simulating in this way the awe, reverence, or fear that they feel towards him. In the long middle section, containing the bulk of Christ's teaching, interspersed with a few miracles, the movie presents a figure who is angrier, more serious, more radical in his demands, than we are used to in movies about Jesus. In one tour de force sequence, Pasolini presents various close-ups of Jesus, preaching on different occasions, sometimes with wind or storm in the background. Having all this come at us at once penetrates the mind in a way that it never does in little quotations.

The words of this vigorous and emphatic character come straight from the text - with his statements about bringing a sword rather than peace, or his many apocalyptic warnings and parables, the film depicts prominent aspects of Jesus that have usually been glossed over in favor of a popular image of the "meek and mild" savior. Over the years this has caused some discomfort on the part of some Christian viewers, because the message is so harsh and uncompromising. Complaints that Pasolini was somehow critiquing Christianity in this way are deeply ironic, since the director uses the words of Jesus from the Gospel with very few cuts. The scenes in which Jesus smiles upon the children, and other gentler aspects are there as well, along with the miracles such as walking on water. So it really isn't that the film puts some kind of slant on the material that makes it startling, it's that the material itself has an unexpected effect after being excavated out from under centuries of cultural assumptions and beliefs, and presented in this unassuming way.

Another aspect of Matthew's approach, brilliant in its simplicity, is that it takes the imagined point of view of a believer at the time the Gospel was written, rather than taking the imagined point of view of a believer today. There are many reaction shots in the film - followers and others reacting to the words of Jesus with puzzlement, anger, astonishment, joy, or wonder. The natural human expressions are set against the extremely non-mundane event of an apocaplytic Messiah figure in their midst. There is no psychology here. Pasolini does not explore the character of Jesus as an individual, nor of the other figures in the story. The film, instead, often takes the point of view of a witness, in place of the customary omniscient one. The most notable example is the final section of the film comprising the two trials of Christ (before the priests, and then before Pilate) and the crucifixion. The trials are done in long-shot, cinema-verite style, from the point of view of Peter struggling to get a glimpse of what is going on through the crowd. We can barely see Jesus at all, although we can hear what is being said. The documentary treatment of the crucifixion, including the remarkable scenes of the crowds traveling to Golgotha, creates a painful, tragic effect precisely because of its matter-of-fact tone.

St. Matthew succeeds in stimulating thought about religion - a claim few films can make. While there are many other aspects of the movie that would illustrate the director's method, and help explain why it works, I wish to explore some issues surrounding Christianity itself, issues that are brought forward though Pasolini's treatment. I believe that the ways in which films have depicted the Christ story tell us interesting things about traditional religion, and for this reason I need to make a brief foray into the realm of the Hollywood spectacle. I also believe that Pasolini's film depicts the Christ story in a way that is much more interesting than that of these other films, because it touches on important, yet little-discussed, aspects of Christianity and our relationship to it as people and as a culture. I realize that an entire book could be written on the topic, but my goal here is to at least imitate Pasolini in stimulating some thought on a subject that is generally neglected because of the very pervasiveness of its influence. One more brief look, first, at Pasolin's method will set us on our way.

Despite his apprenticeship within the Italian film industry, working with various directors, including Fellini, Pasolini was not steeped in cinematic tradition, and never bothered to study technique very closely. His influences were painters rather than directors - in fact it's hard to spot a direct influence in the style of his post-neorealist work, with the possible exception of Carl Dreyer. With the scant means at his disposal, he invented his style as he went along, and it shows, not always to good effect. The editing and movement in St. Matthew can be crude, the camera placement clumsy, but ultimately the naiveté of his approach serves as an asset. Sudden cuts (as in the case of the appearances of the angel) are amazingly similar in effect to the experience of reading the Gospel itself, with its heightened mythic/prophetic tone and its lack of concern for narrative continuity. For a musical score he uses Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" and other themes from Bach, Mozart and Prokofiev. In the sequence depicting the Magi's visit to the Christ child (and later when we see John the Baptist at work) we hear the Negro spiritual "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" on the soundtrack. The very lack of affectation in this approach helps to make it work. In this case, and for the most part in the method as a whole, the fact that we are seeing a depiction of a well-known text is not "hidden" by the style, in the way that most stories are hidden, consciously or not, in a pretense of realism, by the traditional seamless style (associated with Hollywood) that effaces itself in the service of a story. In other words, the nature of the Gospel as mythic narrative becomes clear. because of the fact, completely evident in the style, that this is a dramatization on film. I am not, of course, talking about a self-consciously overt attention to style. It's more as if Pasolini were showing a home movie that happened to be about Jesus. The simplicity and naiveté (imagine a group of friends going out to the desert with a camera and putting together a Bible movie, and you won't be too far from the truth), creates, paradoxically, a deeper connection to the material - a mythic connection - than an expensive, meticulously produced and directed film could ever hope to achieve. In order to understand why this would be so, I will take some time to discuss a couple of major Hollywood versions of the story of Jesus, made around the same period as Pasolini's film.

King of Kings ('61) is a textbook example of how a Bible movie can go wrong. It takes a pseudo-historical approach, beginning with the Roman conquest of Judaea and Pompey's entrance into Jerusalem, and proceeds to turn the Christ story into a sword-and-sandal epic. Barabbas is recast as a Zealot freedom fighter, presumably to explain why people would want him released in the end instead of Jesus. Important elements such as the Nativity are given short shrift in favor of the DeMille-like spectacles of violent crowd scenes, the debauchery of Salome, and the machinations of Herod and the evil Romans. Poor Jeffrey Hunter, as Jesus, is way over his head, vainly trying to imitate Godhood with a piercing blue-eyed stare. (The cultural weight of belief in Jesus' divinity puts an impossible strain on any actor. The amateur actor in Pasolini's film, maybe because he didn't know any better, plays him as only a man.) King of Kings has no religious feeling whatsoever. The script rarely uses the Biblical texts, and when it does it flattens them to make them sound more rational. Jesus is made to do and say things that are not in the Bible, and these passages have the bland, deliberately inoffensive quality of liberal sermons on tolerance.

Those looking for camp will find plenty to laugh at. Apparently director Nicholas Ray wanted to de-mythicize Jesus, but without overtly challenging conventional pieties, the film fails at portraying anything but the poverty of its thought. In the end, the dilemma is that the Gospels don't have enough drama in the Hollywood sense, so the picture is always trying to whip things up with its theme of Roman persecution. In an outrageous innovation, the script turns Judas (Rip Torn) into a revolutionary who betrays Jesus because he thinks the Master will crush Rome with his supernatural power once he is threatened. The portentous narration by Orson Welles provides the finishing touch to this ludicrous and embarrassing film.

The Greatest Story Ever Told ('65), in contrast, has a firmer grasp on the material, gorgeous wide-screen photography, and an able lead performer in Max von Sydow. The director, George Stevens, has patience and visual style. Sometimes he even comes close to poetry. Yet even with all this going for it, the film only proves that well-done schlock is still schlock. The picture strains to achieve religious feeling, but fails for reasons that are complex. It's easy to blame the all-star casting, which continually shakes the viewer out of the fictional dream. A scene, for instance, where Jesus heals a cripple, although rather good, can't help but be undercut a bit by the fact that the cripple is Sal Mineo. It is amusing to notice how the screenplay tries to fill out the Gospel material with more dialogue (James: "What is your name?" Jesus: "Jesus." James: "That's a good name!" Jesus: "Thank you!") that only succeeds in exposing the pettiness of a dramatic approach.

In many ways, the film pursues the same strategy as King of Kings - lots of scenes with the bad guys plotting, phony human interest, softening of Christ's teachings to make them consistent. At one point, Jesus says "Do what the Pharisees say, but don't follow their actions. They don't practice what they preach." It's as if the screenwriters have gone through the Gospels with a blue pencil, trying to recast the words so that we (the dummies in the audience) can accept them. After the resurrection we have a scene with Caiaphas saying "Well, this will all be forgotten in a week." And someone else says, "I wonder...." Chuckle, chuckle. Of course we, the dummies, know that Christianity eventually became the number one boss religion.

I believe that the dramatic approach to religious texts, whether it be in the form of spectacle as in these two Hollywood epics, or in more modest forms, is doomed to failure because of the incompatibility of the mythic dimension with dramatic treatment. This is not so much the case with mythological stories that have little or no connection to popular religion, e.g. the Arthurian legends, Grimm's fairy tales, etc. In those cases the mythic content is commonly recognized for what it is, and therefore the archetypal meanings are free to develop from within the treatment rather than already bearing a load of cultural and historical meaning that it must either represent or challenge. This isn't to say that films on these themes can't be ridiculous or pretentious - they often are, but it's more a question of the degree of skill involved than of the nature of the treatment itself.

I've always thought that The Greatest Story Ever Told was an awful, bombastic title for a film. It's interesting to attempt an objective evaluation of the title's claim. How are we judging the "greatness" of a story? As irreverent as it is to say, I would maintain that The Count of Monte Cristo is a better story, along with scores of other rousing tales I could think of. But of course my assumption is facetious. The story is claimed as the greatest because it concerns the world savior and God-man of the Christian faith, the central figure in the Western religious tradition.

However, there is an unconscious contradiction in the title. Notwithstanding the fact that we sometimes refer to a "true story," the use of the word story, and the idea of storytelling, inevitably and unavoidably suggests myth. Myths have always been told as an avenue of meaning - meaning on many levels, relating to the customs of the community, to the development of the individual, to religious truths, ethical truths, and to many other kinds of truth. Truth is revealed through symbol and metaphor. Metaphor is inherent in human thought and communication. And inherent in metaphor is what I would call, for lack of a better term, an element of fiction. Outside of simple sentences such as "The table is over there," and such, this element is always present. If we take, for example, the story of Narcissus, we know that people don't really turn into flowers, or echoes - in that sense the story is fiction. But that doesn't mean that the story doesn't provide an avenue to a deeper truth in the human soul or psyche, the kind of truth that can only be adequately expressed and experienced through metaphor, i.e. myth.

But here is the crux of the problem - not just in this bombastic film title, but in the whole project of dramatizing the Christ story. Christianity has from the beginning claimed to exclude the element of fiction from its message. Unlike the dying and resurrecting gods of tradition - Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis, Dionysus, etc. - this god was a real person who really died and was really resurrected. This was indeed an aspect of early Christianity which gave it a special character and sense of urgency. (See 2 Peter 1.16-18, for example.)

Before the advent of science, the distinction between myth and literal truth was not an important one for the mass of humanity. The educated classes were able to distinguish between them and to recognize the value and purpose of metaphor, while for most there was no difference. The Christian writings themselves, despite the denial of mythic content, showed little awareness of the distinction. The Gospels depict, to give just one example, Jesus praying to God, when no one else could have heard what he was saying so as to write it down later. Such things did not matter because the mythic dimension permeated human thought to a greater degree than the Christians were aware. Of course they were not concerned with historical objectivity, but with salvation.

With the rise of science in the West over the centuries, the distinction between mythic truth and literal or objective truth has become more and more evident and widely known, with the resulting split between religious belief and rationalism that we experience in modern times. This hasn't had much impact on Eastern religions because their mythic material, for reasons too complex to explore here, has tended to be discrete - inessential to the basic message. One can be a Buddhist without having to care about whether or not the Buddha was born of a virgin. But the three Levantine religions - and especially Christianity - have struggled to maintain, at least on the institutional level, a denial of mythic content. In the West, "mythical" has come to mean "false," and since the resurrection itself, not to mention less important miracles in the New Testament, is called into question by science and secularism, the need and the truth of religious faith itself is called into question.

In this article, I can go no further into this fascinating aspect of my theme without turning an essay into a book. I must be content to say that I don't believe in literal truth as a valid category of religious thought any more than I would believe in mythical truth as a valid scientific category. Without metaphor, there is no meaning in human life beyond the simple elements of survival. I don't think life without metaphor is livable in a real sense, and therefore I think human beings will always have some kind of religious faith. But the dilemma of religion in modern times is that religious people must be able to acknowledge the fictional aspect of myth, while still accessing the truth of myth. As long as people deny that their religion has a mythic element at all, they will face insuperable contradictions. Similarly, if people - religious or not - deny the necessity of a mythic dimension in life, they will suffer a loss of meaning as well.

It hardly needs saying that metaphor is common to all forms of literature. The trouble in this case arises when the forms of the modern realist drama, or melodrama, and their various genres such as romance or adventure, is applied to the Gospels or other basic religious texts. Even leaving aside all questions concerning the objective veracity of the Gospels, the fact is that the "stories" are not intended to divert or entertain us. The intent is of a religious nature, which pertains to the soul and its relation to the Divine, and in this case it also pertains to humanity as a whole and its relation, as a community, to the Divine. Their tone - the feeling with which they are permeated - is mythic, in the sense that it reflects an archetypal view of human life and destiny. In order to be true to this tone in a work of art, therefore, one must be in accord with the mythic realm.

The two Hollywood epics I have discussed, and other productions that have attempted to dramatise the Gospels, have failed because they try to smooth out the edges of this mythic feeling, which always produces a variety of responses - ambiguous, sometimes disturbing, often conflicting. There is really no conventional story at all, which is why they end up spending time on the characters of Herod or Pilate as villains, or thinking up ingenious motivations for Judas. All these inventions end up looking silly, because they transpose essentially mythic material into the realm of conventional drama, with characters and conflict and denouement, etc. - and the contrast between the intense and seemingly chaotic quality of the basic material with the tame, superficial consciousness of the dramatic treatment causes the attempt to collapse in futility.

Pasolini's film succeeded, at least to a much greater degree than any other, in conveying the mythic feeling of the Gospels, therefore allowing the viewer to access religious truth and feeling. The ironic aspect of this is not so much that Pasolini was a Marxist. (Why shouldn't a Marxist be able to make a good film about a man who said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?) The irony is that the very poverty of the director's means, the utter simplicity of the approach, the quality that in Hollywood terms would be considered amateurish, was exactly what was needed. The Gospel According to St. Matthew avoids the dramatic form almost completely. There is no attempt to penetrate either the words or the actions with a coherent rationale. Instead the director uses core elements - music, close-up, abrupt cutting, a stark and unadorned visual sense, to allow the material, with its diverse and complex meanings, to emerge on its own. The viewer takes it in and responds to it on its own terms. We are aware, not necessarily on an intellectual level but definitely on an aesthetic one, that the material has a mythic dimension. Not just that the stories may or may not be "literally" true, but that the tone or feeling conveyed through the words and actions is not intended as a naturalistic portrait of or comment on life, but rather has a significance which is inward, i.e. religious, in nature. Pasolini recognized the essential unity of myth and religion, myth as the avenue to religion - as well as the essential distinction - the avenue in itself only significant because of where it goes.

People have an absolute need for meaning, whether they know it or not. One of the tragedies of the modern era is that our myths, our common poetry, have become so impoverished, so compromised by forces which are opposed to the imagination - power, commerce, self-centered fear as the guiding principle of social life - that we become cut off from meaning to the point of despair. It is the task of art, I believe, to establish connection again with the mythic realm, to help heal the rift between myth and religion, and to open a door to the deeper meanings contained within us. If spirituality is to be truly expressed through art - through cinema and all the other arts - then we can learn from films like Pasolini's. We can learn, I hope, that the best way is to accept the mythic realm as a place where self-complacency is challenged, a place where contradictions are allowed to exist together, a place where the ancient power of metaphor bursts the bounds of reason. To learn that, we need simply, in a time of closed minds, to be open.

©2001 Chris Dashiell