Saturday, September 21, 2013

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW (IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO, 1964)—A Critical Overview

"Someone who walks up to a couple of people and says, 'Drop your nets and follow me' is a total revolutionary."—Pier Paolo Pasolini

I envy anyone their first viewing of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964). Hopefully, that first viewing will be in-cinema with a 35mm print so that the film's defamiliarizing visuals can achieve their full and intended impact. My first viewing was at home on DVD screener, yet—even as such—I was tremendously impacted by this film, thrown off by it you might say, and it has lingered with me weeks afterwards. I eagerly anticipate a second viewing tomorrow when a restored 35mm print of Matthew screens at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive (PFA), as part of the Bay Area's multi-venue tribute to Pasolini.

As Judy Bloch has written in her PFA program note: "What was seen in 1964 as a daringly direct, almost reportorial account of the Gospel of St. Matthew, set against the everyday life of the times, today looks like a radically stylized classic. Pasolini employed a cast of nonprofessional actors, and settings of rugged Southern Italian landscapes and hill towns, shot with a mixture of cinema-verité techniques, expressive close-ups, and ingenious set pieces. His Christ (Catalonian economics student Enrique Irazoqui) is an anguished and determined revolutionary, setting children against their parents as he has turned against his, a peripatetic preacher against the afflictions of social injustice. (He has an artist's ego: 'Only in his own country, a prophet goes unhonored.') His miracles are as matter-of-fact as Pasolini's pageantry is gritty. The faces Pasolini has chosen are those of the rural proletariat, but they evoke parallels with Italian religious art; similarly, the music is a mixture of black spirituals, the Missa Luba, and Bach."

The story goes that the idea to make a Passion film came to Pasolini in October 1962 during the Pope's visit to Assisi. The filmmaker was trapped in a hotel room and had nothing better to do but read a copy of the Bible. He found the text incredibly rich and decided to bring it to the screen. Pasolini dedicated the film to Pope John XXIII, who turned around centuries of Christian anti-Semitism with the Second Vatican Council.

Matthew premiered in competition at the 1964 Venice Film Festival, where—according to John Wakemen, editor of World Film Directors Volume 2: 1945-1985—crowds had gathered prepared to boo Pasolini. He had scandalized Catholic sensibilities a year earlier with his short film La Ricotta—deemed contemptuous of the state religion—earning him a conviction and a four-month jail sentence. Instead, the film was awarded the OCIC Award and the Special Jury Prize, audiences cheered, and his conviction was voided by an appeals court. Matthew went on to have a robust festival run, opening theatrically in the United States in 1966, receiving three Oscar® nominations for Art Direction (Luigi Scaccianoce), Costume Design (Danilo Donati), and Score (Luis Enriquez Bacalov).

Matthew also won the grand prize of the International Catholic Film Office, which screened the film inside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and it was one of 45 films recommended by the Vatican in 1996 in honor of the centenary of cinema; honors that—Kenneth Turan reports—were "huffily condemned" by fellow director Franco Zeffirelli whose religious films Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) and Jesus of Nazareth (1973) did not make the list. Zeffirelli complained Pasolini was "not only mediocre but also an atheist.''

As Roger Ebert pointed out, along with right-wing Catholic groups who picketed the film, "the French left was as outraged as the Italian right, and Sartre met with Pasolini, telling him somewhat obscurely, 'Stalin rehabilitated Ivan the Terrible; Christ is not yet rehabilitated by Marxists.' "

As Matthew approached the U.S., anticipatory reviews were more consistently enthusiastic. Writing for the Autumn 1965 issue of Film Comment, Maryvonne Butcher asserted: "In my opinion, The Gospel According to Matthew is incomparably the most effective picture ever made on a scriptural theme." Veteran British critic Alexander Walker likewise proclaimed that Matthew "grips the historical and psychological imagination like no other religious film I have ever seen." Nearly 40 years later, Roger Ebert concurred: "Pasolini's is one of the most effective films on a religious theme I have ever seen, perhaps because it was made by a nonbeliever who did not preach, glorify, underline, sentimentalize or romanticize his famous story, but tried his best to simply record it." Reporting from the New York premiere for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther praised the film's "flinty" language, naturalistic sense of place, Pasolini's "remarkable avoidance of clichés", and the surprisingly memorable performances of his unskilled actors. As summed up by The Virginia Pilot, Pasolini's film suffered "no starched laundry."

A critical overview of The Gospel According to Matthew requires attention to the sequential waves of criticism reacting to the film: the first wave in the mid-'60s, as stated above, when the film premiered at festivals and during its early theatrical life. The second, nearly 40 years later, occurred in the wake of the controversy elicited by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), which inspired reviewers to make comparisons with the existing canon of films depicting the life of Christ, including Pasolini's. One might argue that this seeming necessity emerged as a very good moment indeed for Pasolini's Matthew to be rediscoverd, revisited and re-appreciated, not only comparatively, but on its own terms (which—let's face it—shouldn't have required Gibson's folly).

Of the reviews comparing Gibson with Pasolini pro and con are Kenneth Turan's for the L.A. Weekly, Roger Ebert for his site, Christopher C. Fuller, Ph.D. for The Society of Biblical Literature (interestingly analyzing fidelity to source in both films), Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev for First Things, and Stefano Ciammaroni for Reverse Shot.

Ebert provides, perhaps, the most trenchant comparison: "To see the film a few weeks after seeing Gibson's is to understand that there is no single version of his story. It acts as a template into which we fit our ideas, and we see it as our lives have prepared us for it. Gibson sees Christ's suffering as the overwhelming fact of his life, and his film contains very little of Christ's teachings. Pasolini thought the teachings were the central story. If a hypothetical viewer came to The Passion with no previous knowledge of Jesus and wondered what all the furor was about, Pasolini's film would argue: Jesus was a radical whose teachings, if taken seriously, would contradict the values of most human societies ever since."

Of course, as Pasolini's films began to be shown in institutional retrospectives, regional critics responded. By way of example, when Matthew screened as part of the Harvard Film Archives' September 2010 retrospective, Peter Keough wrote of Pasolini's "perverse poetry" at The Phoenix: "Although Pasolini remains faithful to the original text, his Christ … stirs crowds like a revolutionary, and the Marxist subtext couples with a meditative stillness that builds to an epiphany. Everything, including miracles, occurs with blunt literalness but also shimmers with immanence. And so the blunt Crucifixion and the threadbare Resurrection pierce ideology and open into something deeper."

In 2012, Masters of Cinema released Matthew on DVD/Blu-Ray, initiating a fresh suite of critiques, several which were profiled by David Hudson at his Daily (then at MUBI), including Philip French's Guardian review and David Jenkins at Little White Lies, let alone a sizeable earlier quote from Martin Scorsese regarding Pasolini's influence on his own The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

To Hudson's list, I might add the write-up at Covey on Film, which is refreshingly informed as to the historical context of the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew, allowing Covey to more fully recognize the artistic license Pasolini took filming particular passages. The challenge of creating a dramatic narrative while adhering to a verbatim text is astutely analyzed, and questions regarding Pasolini's reasons for stylizing and/or omitting the gospel's five sermons are intriguingly raised.

Perhaps most importantly is when Covey questions Masters of Cinema's "misplaced emphasis" on changing the English title from its previous cinematic releases by removing the "Saint" honorific, thereby restoring the film to its original Italian title. Apparently the addition of "Saint" during the film's U.S. distribution caused Pasolini "considerable anguish." Pasolini's personal wishes aside, Covey suggests it's all much ado about nothing considering most "scholars, Christian and not, have recognized since the 1600s that Matthew wasn't the author at all. The fact that it is an anonymous text did not keep it from being associated, from a very early date in Christian tradition, with one of the first apostles, but the fact is, calling the author 'Matthew' is really just a convention, in textual history terms." Notwithstanding, I follow Master of Cinema's impetus to honor Pasolini's wishes.

A third wave of critical appreciation—this one having more the feel of a tsunami—attends the touring retrospective of remastered 35mm prints (currently at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive). When the films screened earlier this year at the British Film Institute, Geoff Andrews considered the challenges of making a plausibly religious film. "Just as prayer is hard to get right in a movie," he writes, "so too are most things to do with faith and notions of divinity. …Even with the magic of cinema, miracles and visionary epiphanies often come across as incredible, simply because we know how editing, special effects and film artifice in general are so often devoted to deceiving the eye. And then there's the perennial question of how to represent holiness: too often it comes down to the clichés of dramatic backlighting and filters, a soaring, saccharine choral score and actors behaving in a way which seems so angelically distracted that they barely feel human at all. Perhaps that's why the films which depict divinity, spirituality or religious faith most persuasively are very often those which adhere most closely to a kind of materialistic realism rooted in the physical aspects of existence." Here, of course, Andrews extols Pasolini's specific achievement, earlier cited by Russell Hittinger and Elizabeth Lev as a "relevant Jesus mode" (emphasis added).

At The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw categorizes Matthew as a "brilliant and entirely unforgiving neorealist Passion play" that "looks as if it has been hacked from some stark rockface." He adds: "This really is raw film-making, in a political vernacular which speaks of Pasolini's high, theocratic Marxist belief in the sovereignty of the people, like the publicans and the harlots that Christ said understood him. The texture and feel of what's on the screen is abrasive and uncompromising…. A fierce magnesium flame of a movie."

"Pier Paolo Pasolini's greatest strength as a filmmaker," writes Vagrant Café, "was his ability to take scenes from canonized literature and transform them into literal images." At the London Review of Books, Michael Wood delivers an eloquent analysis of Matthew's opening scene, first to praise Pasolini's use of the faces of non-actors to tell the story of Matthew's gospel as images—later with images—at which point Wood criticizes the film's impatience "to finish, to run away from a story it now finds crowded rather than interesting." Wood writes that "Pasolini has taken Matthew's jagged narrative and made it into a bleak, Brechtian epic." He grants that Pasolini's portrayal of Jesus is "an impeccable artistic response in the Brechtian sense" (in that it is "a tangible representation of an impossible case") but cautions that this theologically sound disconnect—"this is the son of God, how could he look like anybody, talk like anybody?"—can't be kept up forever. When the disconnect no longer serves its defamiliarizing purpose, Wood complains that "everything lapses into bathos. The film becomes a school nativity play taking itself too seriously. The person who a moment ago had been a vivid but schematic, almost abstract representation of Jesus (or Peter or Judas or Pilate or Mary), a figure in a tapestry say, now seems to have wandered in from a Fellini film, or better, an audition for a Fellini film in its early stages of planning. And we can't even enjoy the effect of the grotesque here, since the austere style doesn't allow it. The figures just seem stranded, real people watching their notional identities walk awkwardly away from them."

Also in response to the BFI retrospective, Mamoun Hassan introduced a screening of Pasolini's Matthew to a full house at the National Film Theatre in London on March 8, 2013, and this has been captured on video and offered for viewing at Vimeo.

Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew is available for mail rental at Netflix, and streaming on Hulu Plus, Amazon, and Fandor. Fandor synopsizes: "The birth, life, teachings and death on the cross of Jesus Christ presented almost as a cinéma-vérité documentary. Pasolini's second feature seemed a strange choice for such a revolutionary director, but it is an attempt to take Christ out of the opulent church and present him as an outcast Italian peasant. Applying Neo-Realist methods, the director shot in Calabria, using the expressive faces of non-professionals including that of his mother as the Virgin Mary. The Gospel According to Matthew is considered the greatest screen version of the 'greatest story ever told' and this freshly remastered version brings the film to life in a way that has never been seen before." Also at Fandor is Kevin Lee's appreciative video essay "The Gospel Faces of Pier Paolo Pasolini".

The trailer for the film is available at YouTube, where the film can likewise be found in its entirety. At the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive CineFiles database, several rare documents on Matthew can be studied.

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