A spiritual masterwork from an atheist

Times Staff Writer

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for disinterested parties to see “The Passion,” Mel Gibson’s much talked about film on the death of Christ. But no matter how good or bad it turns out to be when it’s finally released, “The Passion’s” partisans are missing out when they claim there’s never been a great film on the subject before. There has, and it couldn’t come from a more unlikely source.

“The Gospel According to St. Matthew” is a little-seen 1964 masterpiece by the controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a film that veteran British critic Alexander Walker was not alone in proclaiming “grips the historical and psychological imagination like no other religious film I have ever seen.”

And there have been others. Many others. According to Roy Kinnard and Tim Davis’ “Divine Images: A History of Jesus on the Screen,” some 47 actors have played Christ between 1897 and 1989, everyone from Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sydow to Willem Dafoe and even Zalman King. Yet none of their films reached the heights that Pasolini’s did.


A Catholic turned atheist and a committed Marxist who got into trouble with both the party and the church for his unapologetic homosexuality, Pasolini was often indicted for blasphemy and later made films like “Salo” that were declared obscene by Italian courts. His brutal death at age 53 came at the hands of a 17-year-old boy he’d picked up in a bar.

Yet this man’s “St. Matthew” (available on video) was justly considered to be one of the most spiritual films ever made. It won the grand prize of the International Catholic Film Office (as well as two awards at Venice) and was one of 45 films recommended by the Vatican in 1996 in honor of the centenary of cinema.

That was an action that fellow director Franco Zeffirelli (whose films did not make the list) huffily condemned because the director had been “not only mediocre but also an atheist.” Yet no zealous true believer could have made a more effective work on the subject than this dynamic and respectful film, and seeing it again in anticipation of Gibson’s epic leads to a new appreciation of how improbable and complete its success was.

For not only was Pasolini an implausible filmmaker for the subject matter, his film is an unlooked-for amalgam of disparate elements and influences not guaranteed to blend smoothly. Yet -- one is tempted to say miraculously -- they do.

Nontraditional music, setting

In the beginning, as they had to be, were the words. The lines in Pasolini’s spare Italian-language screenplay are all from Matthew, and the director has found ways to make sentiments like “man shall not live by bread alone” and “the poor shall you always have with you” resound with the power of something spoken for the first time.

If the words are traditional, the film’s music is not. Yes, there is Bach, but there is also the forceful African Missa Luba and the blues of Son House. Odetta’s version of “Motherless Child” makes an unexpected appearance, and the music Prokofiev wrote for the German slaughter of babies in Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” fits perfectly behind Herod’s massacre of the innocents.


Even more nontraditional is the bleak setting of Calabria in southern Italy, which Pasolini chose after scouting and rejecting locations in Israel. Stunningly photographed in black and white by Tonino Delli Colli, the parched hill towns and ruined buildings of the area seem to be part of the same universe as ancient Palestine, donkeys and all.

Pasolini’s key decision was to shoot this story in the great Italian tradition of neo-realism, using nonprofessional actors for all the roles and selecting a young Spanish student named Enrique Irazoqui to play his charismatic, active Christ.

Determined to give Christ’s words their full weight, Pasolini had Irazoqui’s voice dubbed by actor Enrico Maria Salerno. And he did give cameos to people he knew -- the novelist Natalia Ginzburg played Mary of Bethany, and Pasolini’s own mother played Mary grieving at the cross. But what stays with you more are the marvelous faces of local people, each one a book in itself, that give this story exceptional resonance.

Because simplicity is his watchword, there is something elevating about Pasolini’s conception, something of the power and deeply moving nature of the great silent films in what he has done. Everyone in the narrative seems to sense that they are part of what believers will eventually come to call the greatest story ever told.

As Christ’s life unfolds from a clearly surprised Joseph learning that his wife is pregnant to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Pasolini does not shy away from unusual choices. His Angel Gabriel is a young girl, and his Salome is an innocent rather than a practiced temptress. The director treats Christ’s miracles with an effective and almost journalistic matter-of-factness, and the film is aware of yet finally indifferent to the involvement of the Jews. That is simply not the story it wants to be telling.

A forceful presence

The story “St. Matthew” does want to recount is of an activist, liberation theology-influenced Christ, always on the move perhaps because he was conscious of how short his time was. Looking both ethereal and real, this Christ is an uncompromising idealist with burning eyes and an intense gaze, an enemy of hypocrisy and cant who furiously drives the money-changers out of the temple. When he says “he that loves his mother and father more than me is not worthy” and insists “he that loseth his life for me shall find it,” his presence is so forceful he all but compels agreement in his listeners.

Because he wanted to, in his own words, “re-mythicize” the events of Christ’s life, because of the paradox that “I, a nonbeliever, was telling the story through the eyes of a believer,” Pasolini ended up giving this story an unshakable sense of actuality. We experience that much-recounted life as if we were watching it for the very first time, almost in a newsreel, as if it were something that happened to real people at a real moment in time.

Pasolini may not have believed, but the dynamic power of belief is behind the lasting work he does here. Unwilling to be pigeonholed either aesthetically or philosophically, Pasolini had a thoughtful response when asked how a Marxist could make a film like “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” He called it “a reaction against the conformity of Marxism. The mystery of life and death and of suffering -- and particularly of religion ... is something that Marxists do not want to consider. But these are and always have been questions of great importance for human beings.”

Kenneth Turan is a Times film critic.