The Case for Watching Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew on Good Friday - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Case for Watching Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew on Good Friday
Jesus in The Gospel According to St Matthew (Cine School/YouTube)

Within Christian circles, it has become a tradition for many to watch Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday. The controversial 2004 film, which is to be followed up with a sequel (Resurrection) in 2024, has garnered both acclaim and criticism for its bold and grizzly depiction of the events leading up to Christ’s death. While I have and will continue to watch Gibson’s rendition, I will also be watching Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew — and I think you should too.

Pasolini, born in 1922 in Bologna, Italy, was a man of contradictions largely misunderstood by his fans and critics alike. An openly gay Marxist and an atheist, his relationship with the Roman Catholic Church and with Christianity more broadly was complicated, to say the least. His first depiction of Jesus in the 1962 short La Ricotta got him sentenced to four months in jail due to what was deemed a blasphemous “contempt for the state religion.” But he recognized that organized religion — especially Christianity — was able to account for aspects of the human condition that Marxism failed to grasp. “The mystery of life and death and of suffering — and particularly of religion … is something that Marxists do not want to consider,” he asserted. “But these are and have always been questions of great importance for human beings.”

He recognized that organized religion — especially Christianity — was able to account for aspects of the human condition that Marxism failed to grasp.

The decision to depict the life of Jesus was in part “a reaction against the conformity of Marxism,” which had proved to do little to counter the spread of bourgeois social norms and existential aridity in Italy. The materialist philosophical foundations of Marx’s worldview rendered it incapable of adequately addressing the roots of bourgeois materialism. The lack of metaphysical grounding of communist revolutionaries in the 1960s would bring about what Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce would call “the final bourgeois revolution.” Marxists fell into the same “worldly” trap as their affluent elitist opponents, who understood human fulfillment as “tied to the sensations, emotions, and desires of the individual.”

Despite never formally returning to his childhood faith, Pasolini was, according to Catholic priest and theologian Luigi Giussani, “the only [true] Catholic intellectual.” Giussani would clamor with amazement to whomever was present in the room after reading Pasolini’s articles in the Corriere Della Sera newspaper. He was “struck by Pasolini’s criticism of ‘homogenization,’ of the destruction of the people carried out by a new power … for whom the only divinity was the market and the only way of life was consumerism,” all of which are themes he explored in his rendering of the Marquis De Sade’s 120 Days in Sodom. His insights, though arrived at by Marxist logic, had significant overlap with a Christian worldview. Giussani was dismayed upon finding out about Pasolini’s violent murder in 1975, as he was in the midst of finishing a letter addressed to the director in hopes of striking up a friendship (it’s said that Pasolini was also a fan of Fr. Giussani’s writings).

Giussani was not the only cleric interested in Pasolini’s work. Shortly after the fiasco over La Ricotta, Pope John XXIII (to whose “dear, joyous, familiar” memory he later dedicated The Gospel According to Matthew) invited the filmmaker to an event for non-Catholic artists hosted in Assisi. Pasolini graciously accepted the invitation, but was unable to make it to the venue due to the massive crowds blocking the roads as the pontiff was making his way into the city. While stranded in his hotel room, he flipped open a Bible and spent the whole day reading all four Gospel accounts. He found the Gospel of John “too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental,” but found himself drawn to the humanity of Jesus in Matthew’s account, so much so that he was inspired to bring it to life through film — an idea that he felt “threw in the shade all the other ideas for work I had in my head.”

Directed in the Italian neorealist style, the film was shot in the Italian countryside featuring local nonprofessional actors, friends of his who were intellectuals and poets, and his own mother cast as the Virgin Mary. British film critic Alexander Walker found that the film “grips the historical and psychological imagination like no other religious film I have seen. And for all its apparent simplicity, it is visually rich and contains strange, disturbing hints and undertones about Christ and his mission.” And despite some initial backlash from the Vatican, it eventually made it into the Vatican’s list of 45 great films in 1995.

The film’s subtlety is captivating. The absence of both gore and kitschy sentimentality conveys the story of Jesus with simplicity and understatement, making space for Jesus and his message to outshine the film’s production. The dialogue is minimal, relying solely on the text from Matthew’s Gospel. The central mode of communication is not through words, but through the gazes of the characters.

The absence of both gore and kitschy sentimentality conveys the story of Jesus with simplicity and understatement.

Pasolini’s closeups on the eyes of Jesus and the people he encounters echo one of the key theological insights of Giussani, who placed emphasis on the way that the disciples recognized Jesus as the Messiah, the “one they were waiting for,” and how they were “won over” by his very “presence” — which although thoroughly human and “natural,” carried within it a divine “correspondence,” meaning that being with him resonated with the deepest needs in their hearts. Giussani posits that the conversion, the true change that happened within those who met Jesus, was born not from their moral effort or force of will, but by the paradoxical joy that sprung from encountering the “supernatural” within the realm of normal, everyday life.

For this reason, Giussani posited that Pasolini was emblematic of “the drama of a man raised in the Catholic tradition that he received from his mother … which he eventually abandoned because it had not been supported by the experience of a ‘new encounter.’” He “followed the wrong road: he said that truth does not exist—or rather, that we do not know what the truth is … But little by little in his life he heard the echo of what his mother had said about life, about truth, and about which road to travel.” If only Pasolini had had such an encounter, “he would have wept.”

I concede that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a masterpiece. It participates in a long tradition of passion plays, whose merit ought to be judged more so for their liturgical and pedagogical value than their aesthetic quality or capacity to entertain. Gibson brings this tradition to the screen in a way that no one else has, and that no one probably ever will.

For those who are used to watching The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday, it might be time to switch things up this year.

That being said, I find that The Gospel According the Matthew manages to convey Pope Benedict XVI’s assertion that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” in a way that the Passion fails to do. The gore and violence of Gibson’s rendering — though on one hand pointing to the love of a God who is willing to take on our sins and endure such horrid suffering — quickly slips into a “moralistic” trap. It risks placing too much emphasis on the sinner rather than on the Redeemer, whose merciful gaze is much more powerful and transformative than the sinner’s remorse for his mistakes and voluntaristic efforts to change. While conversion indeed requires the sinner’s repentance and willingness to collaborate with God’s grace, the real change is accomplished by God himself.

Though perhaps not Gibson’s intention, his grotesque depiction of the suffering that human sin has inflicted on Christ can come off as decadent and self-indulgent. After watching the film, I do indeed feel a sense of remorse for my sins and gratitude for God’s willingness to suffer for me, but rarely do I feel substantially changed by watching it. It fails to incite fascination with Christ and a desire to “leave everything and follow him” the way Pasolini’s film does (though I must admit that some of Gibson’s creative imaginings of Mary’s flashbacks to Jesus’ childhood while watching him being scourged, the way that Mary, John, and the Magdalene accompany Jesus on the Via Crucis, and the dialogue between Pilate and his wife Claudia are indeed quite spiritually moving).

For those who are used to watching The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday, it might be time to switch things up this year. Though The Gospel According to Matthew may be long and untheatrical, and its Jesus’ unibrow is quite distracting, its simplicity and spiritual depth make it well worth being given a chance.


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