Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(The Gospel According to St. Matthew)

Italy-France, 1964

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Production: Arco Film (Italy) and C.C.F. Lux (Paris); black and white, 35mm; running time: 142 minutes; English version is 136 minutes and French version is 130 minutes. Released 1964, Italy. Filmed in Calabria, Lucania, and Puglia (southern Italy). (Note: the word "Saint" was used in English version against Pasolini's wishes.)

Producer: Alfredo Bini; executive producer: Manolo Bolognini; screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini, from "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" in the New Testament ; photography: Tonino Delli Colli; editor: Nino Baragli; sound: Mario Del Pezzo; art director: Luigi Scaccianoce; music: Luis Enriquez Bacalov; other music: selections

Il Vangelo secondo Matteo
Il Vangelo secondo Matteo
by Johann Sebastian Bach, Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev, Wolfgang Mozart, and Anton Webern; special effects director: Ettore Catallucci; costume designer: Danilo Donati.

Cast: Enrique Irazoqui ( Jesus Christ ); Margherita Caruso ( Mary, as a girl ); Susanna Pasolini ( Mary, as a woman ); Marcello Morante ( Joseph ); Mario Socrate ( John the Baptist ); Settimo Di Porto ( Peter ); Otello Sestili ( Judas ); Ferruccio Nuzzo ( Matthew ); Giacomo Morante ( John ); Alfonso Gatto ( Andrew ); Enzo Siciliano ( Simon ); Giorgio Agamben ( Philip ); Guido Cerretani ( Bartholomew ); Luigi Barbini ( James, son of Alpheus ); Marcello Galdini ( James, son of Zebedec ); Elio Spaziani ( Thaddeus ); Rosario Migale ( Thomas ); Rodolfo Wilcock ( Caiaphas ); Alessandro Tasca ( Pontius Pilate ); Amerigo Becilacqua ( Herod ); Francesco Leonetti ( Herod Antipas ); Franca Cupane ( Herodias ); Paola Tedesco ( Salome ); Rossana Di Rocco ( Angel ); Eliseo Boschi ( Joseph of Arimathea ); Natalia Ginzburg ( Mary of Bethany ); Renato Terra ( A Pharisee ); Enrio Maria Salerno ( Voice of Jesus ).

Awards: Venice Film Festival, Special Jury Prize; Catholic Film Office award, 1964.



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* * *

Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of the most controversial and fascinating of modern Italian filmmakers, and his films covered a wide variety of subjects and cinematic styles. He once described himself appropriately as a pasticheur , one who selected "items, objects and even styles from here and there." A writer, poet, critic, and filmmaker, as well as an avowed Marxist, atheist, and homosexual, it is ironic that Pasolini made what many hailed as "the best life of Jesus Christ ever placed on film." The Gospel According to St. Matthew is the exact antithesis of Hollywood-produced biblical spectacles: a stark, austere, realistic, almost documentary re-enactment of the story of Christ.

Pasolini was drawn to St. Matthew's Gospel because he found it "rigorous, demanding and absolute" as opposed to Mark's version, which was "too obviously written for people of little education"; or Luke who was "too literary and mellifluous"; or John who was "too much a mystic to be transmitted visually." Pasolini chose to use the dialogue intact from Matthew, using a "standard Catholic translation to avoid polemics," with two exceptions from Isaiah: one where Christ is walking with the Apostles in Calabria prior to the investiture of Peter, and the other where Christ dies. Pasolini was quick to point out that "the whole of Matthew is full of quotes from Isaiah, so I felt that was fair enough."

This is not to say that Pasolini simply presented a literal translation of Matthew's text. His interpretation is a molding of that narrative with changes in chronology, some omissions, and some inventions, such as his version of Salome's dance. When he first began to shoot the film, Pasolini used the same "reverential" camera technique he had used with Accatone , but suddenly realized that approach was "gilding the lily." After just two days, he thought of abandoning the project, then opted for a technique comparable to cinéma vérité , using a hand-held camera and zoom shots to create a documentary-like realism.

For the physical background of the film, Pasolini used the impoverished landscape and villages of southern Italy, which he found to be analogous to those of Palestine where he had visited prior to making the film. For the background music, he chose an electric combination that complimented his unorthodox approach to the film as a whole.

The major contribution to the successful sense of realism was his use of non-professionals as actors. On many occasions Pasolini had said, "I choose actors because of what they are as human beings, not because of what they can do . . . I steal from them; I use their reality." He particularly wanted no recognizable stars doing cameo turns in this interpretation of Christ's story, so his actors came from various walks of life. "Judas is a Roman truck driver," he said. "The Virgin Mary is my mother. Joseph is a lawyer and John the Baptist is a poet. I pick them for what they are; I ask them to play themselves." Likewise, for the pivotal role of Jesus Christ, Pasolini selected Enrique Irazoqui, a student from Barcelona who was visiting Rome. His voice was then dubbed in Italian by Enrico Maria Salerno.

Pasolini set out to create a "purely poetical and natural, non-denominational" version of the life of Christ and, despite his reputation as a Marxist and atheist, the critical reception was highly favorable, with some claiming it to be the finest biblical film ever made. Especially cited were the wonderful faces of the non-actors and Pasolini's pictorial recreation of tableaux inspired by the works of such painters as Botticelli, Rouault, Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca.

As a self-proclaimed non-believer, Pasolini had castigated the dying Pope Pius XII, and stated later that had Pius lived three or four more years he would never have been allowed to make this film. In gratitude for the new climate brought about by the new pope, The Gospel According to St. Matthew is dedicated to "the dear, familiar memory of John XXIII."

—Ronald Bowers

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