Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)

1 03 2011

At the very least, one has to give Pasolini credit for making a story arc as familiar and overplayed as that of Jesus be somewhat gripping and interesting, especially considering the fact that he’s dealing with his entire life. We get the immaculate conception, the crucifixion and everything in between. All the lore of the miracles, the disciples, the unintentional provocation of the world are all photographed in a rather matter of fact manner. There’s an obvious poetry in all of Pasolini’s setups, though. The camera seems to gravitate around all the actors even as others recite extended monologues, all of course coming from the source material. It’s an odd experience, that’s for sure, and like pretty much all of Pasolini’s work, seems like it shouldn’t work at all yet somehow does.

It’s a pretty good idea to at least have some sort of appreciation of Pasolini’s career (in film or elsewhere, which I guess would just be poetry) because his style is so potentially polarizing. He’s been called amateurish and shaky, but to me, that is all part of his charm. Sure, those aren’t the qualities that any filmmaker wants to be defined by, but the “messy” nature of Pasolini’s film career makes his work feel all the more personal. In this case, it is especially important since the story of Jesus seems so impersonal and I don’t mean this as a slight to any religious organizations or religious people. The story concerns the savior of mankind, but Pasolini forms a portrait of a revolutionary that just happens to be the most important one in the history of the world.

I think the single most remarkable aspect of this film is that it essentially tries to create its new language. Sure, the cinema verite approach is not, at least on paper, totally revolutionary, not even in Pasolini’s own oeuvre, but how it’s connected with content that is almost exclusively poetic and/or romantic is sort of brilliant. Sure, there really isn’t a need to focus in on the miraculous nature of Jesus’ life, but when it comes to his extended monologues, which almost bring the film to a screeching halt, those poetic touches do wonders. Sure, a lot of the movie is just people walking around and in all honesty, Pasolini was not nearly as fantastic at photographing landscapes as his fellow countrymen Antonioni, but there is an odd beauty in close-up faux-steadicam shots of people’s faces.

Perhaps there’s a little of Korine here too, which I guess could be enough to turn enough people away, but that’s sort of a fair warning. There’s these odd little sequences that are surreal and sort of grotesque, the leper is one of the first things that comes to mind, but there’s also the spontaneous moments like Jesus’ angry tirade at the expense of a village market. It’s funny, but the movie’s best moments are the ones that seem the least memorable. Somehow, I think that a good representation of the movie as a whole. Sure, you get the big stuff, but it’s Pasolini’s little touches that elevates it beyond being an adaptation.

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