When Jesus first appears onscreen in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film on the life of Christ, I laughed out loud. Portrayed by Spanish student and first-time actor Enrique Irazoqui, Jesus has a unibrow. A unibrow. It’s quite overt. How am I supposed to take the beautiful words of the Sermon on the Mount seriously while staring at the tufts between the Christ’s eyes?
This isn’t the Savior I was expecting. But then I remembered the descriptive words of Isaiah:
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.He was despised and rejected by men,a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.Like one from whom men hide their faceshe was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Jesus was an unexpected Savior, and Pasolini’s entire endeavor defies expectations. An atheist, a Marxist, and openly gay, Pasolini also directed the revolting erotic horror film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a film banned in numerous countries. He seems like the least likely person to create an artistic and honoring portrayal of the life of Christ. Yet his reverence for the person of Jesus shines through in every scene. Shot in black-and-white and spoken in Italian, it forces the modern viewer to drop any preconceived Western notions of Jesus and rethink one’s own conception of the Christ.
Pasolini is extremely faithful to the text of Matthew’s gospel account, choosing to not include any unnecessary extra dialogue or scenes to the film’s narrative. He allows the story of Scripture to speak for itself. It is straightforward, earnest, and realistic. Pasolini reveals a passionate and revolutionary Christ; this Jesus isn’t doe-eyed or a pushover. His stare is penetrating, his words filled with conviction and the weight of truth.
Like the titular gospel account, there is much emphasis on Jesus’ words over his actions. The film doesn’t linger long on the crucifixion, nor does it include many of Jesus’ miracles. Many of the shots are shown from Jesus’ audience, including their somber faces as they eagerly listen to his good news of the kingdom. A particularly fascinating scene happens during the trial of Jesus before Pilate. Instead of focusing the camera nearby to see what’s happening, Pasolini places the shot in the midst of the crowd, as if the audience were an anxious follower trying to peer over shoulders in order to see the outcome. There are a great deal of silent close-ups of people’s faces, perhaps to show us people’s responses to Christ.
One drawback: the film is quite slow. Now, I’m a fan of meditative films that don’t feel a need to rush the narrative. But this film put me to sleep. Twice. Perhaps it was circumstantial and a second viewing would prove to be more engaging, so I share this as a caution of sorts. Bring your coffee. It will require patience and resilience to truly focus and appreciate the experience of the film.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew has caused me to rethink my perceptions of the Savior I follow. Is the Jesus in my heart and mind the true Jesus, or only my own conception of the Christ? Do I allow Jesus to define my entire identity, or do I try to fit Jesus into an identity I am creating apart from Him? Am I disciple of Him or my own desires? This reminds me of a favorite Thomas Merton quote that has brought me much comfort when I am unsure of myself but still sure of the God who saved me:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058715/