‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ – by Pier Paolo Pasolini – (With actor Enrique Irazoqui)
“The motivation that unites all of my films
is to give back to reality
its original sacred significance.”
~ Pier Paolo Pasolini
The famous Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini made this beautiful statement about his art: “When I make a film, I shift into a state of fascination with an object, a thing, a fact, a look, a landscape, as though it were an engine where the holy is about to explode.” This can be immediately felt as we stroll amongst the first scenes of his 1964 movie ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’. We are met with an angelic Mary looking at a bewildered Joseph leaving home after the discovery of her pregnancy. Silence prevails and only a concert of bird’s songs can be heard. Joseph wanders in solitude in a landscape that is desolate yet teeming with presence and energy. He comes to the edge of a town and kneels against a nearby stretch of land where a bunch of children are playing, giving like a lullaby of innocence to Joseph who closes his eyes and abandons himself to the moment. This is the chosen time when an androgynous angel appears and gives him the revelation of the divine nature of Mary’s pregnancy.
In just a few revealing scenes, Pasolini has shown that not only are silence and solitude conducive to the revelation of truth, but that they are the very nature of the deepest presence found at the heart of our self. This is where my thoughts have come to wander: it is the qualities of solitude, silence, and innocence present in our being which are themselves the revelation of truth. It is not that we as a self must practice solitude, silence, and innocence in order to access our true nature. It is because our true self is alone, undivided, knowing no ‘other’, that we meet it in solitude. It is because our deepest being is empty, present before any objective appearances, that we meet it in silence. And it is because our truest nature stands immaculate, unharmed yet vulnerable, that we meet it in innocence. The following revelation comes therefore as the revelation of a birth whose origin is virgin, a birth that needs not being created, a progeny that needs not being born, for it is the presence, in and as ourself, of a self that we already are unknowingly, and of whom we belong in all eternity. In religious terms, this is called the Son of God.
The story goes that Pasolini, who had the reputation to be an atheist, a homosexual, and a Marxist, happened to read the New Testament while being confined to his hotel room during a seminar in Assisi, due to the jams caused by the papal visit there. The desire grew in him to adapt one of the Gospels into a film. He wanted to give a precise and honest rendering of Jesus’ life as it is presented in the text, without any attempt to embellish it, to preach anything, or to even criticise it. This was made possible through Pasolini’s neorealist style of filming, where scenes are presented factually and unemotionally, and played by non-professional actors. The older Mary was played by his own mother, and Jesus was a 19-year-old economics student from Spain who had never played before. The plot and text of the Gospel were strictly respected, Pasolini considering that their poetic heights were unmatchable. Most of the shooting took place in and around the city of Matera in Southern Italy, which is known as the ‘underground city’ for its troglodyte dwellings and the raw and desolate beauty of its landscape.
‘Pasolini Gospel Poster’ – Wikipedia
“The mark which has dominated all my work
is this longing for life, this sense of exclusion,
which doesn’t lessen but augments this love of life.”
~ Pier Paolo Pasolini
The intelligence of Pasolini was to serve the story, to honour the myth of Jesus, and in doing so, he was able to reveal its intrinsic meaning without having to preach it, or even understand it himself. As he once said: “I am not interested in deconsecrating: this is a fashion I hate, it is petit-bourgeois. I want to reconsecrate things as much as possible, I want to re-mythicize them.” So, every part of Jesus’ story is told with utmost respect, clothed with soaring pieces of music that were chosen by the master for their elevating capacities, and their harmonious blending with the scene or moment with which they are associated. When we see Jesus multiplying the bread loaves and the fishes, and the many hungry people lining up to be fed, the harmony of the scene is such that it becomes a vehicle of grace and understanding. The heart understands without being told. It functions by recognition. It is led naturally to the experiential regions of peace. In other words, the film conveys without explaining, which is truly the function of art. In Pasolini’s words: “I do not believe in a metaphysical god. I am religious because I have a natural identification between reality and God. Reality is divine. That is why my films are never naturalistic. The motivation that unites all of my films is to give back to reality its original sacred significance.”
There is a potency in harmony. The words of Jesus become secondary in the film, for their hidden meaning is revealed, or their awkwardness cancelled, not through their own potency, but through the potency of storytelling and craftsmanship. Everything concurs to give to the viewer this inner harmony and love which the words are pointing to. The elegant camera movements, the extraordinary faces met, the singing Italian language, the poignant musical themes, all concur to nourish the heart. There is a magnificent example of this in the scene when the three Wise Men come to visit the new born Jesus, and bring him and his family some gifts. This scene acquires an out-of-this-world quality through a powerful song and Spiritual performed by American singer and Civil Rights activist Odetta. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, A long way from home, a long way from home,” does the haunting voice repeat as the camera captures the smiles and depth of expressions of every character involved. Cinema and storytelling give way here to dance and harmony of forms and feelings. For we all feel like a motherless child in our hearts, looking for the one nourishing thing that will release us from this intolerable suffering. The birth of Jesus becomes here like the birth in ourself of an inner, intimate presence that is our home, and also the home that Jesus attempted to convey through his teaching during his life. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, A long way from home.” But ‘sometimes’ only. For we are eternally — and mostly unknowingly — established in our true home. The ‘sometimes’ is the expression of the forgetting of our true nature, and of our consecutive entanglement to our illusory self and world. This ‘sometimes’ goes a long way in all spiritual understanding. It is like the promise of our sacred destiny as being.
‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ – (With actress Margherita Caruso)
“If anyone desires to come after me,
let him deny himself, take up his cross,
and follow me. For whoever desires
to save his life will lose it, and
whoever will lose his life
for my sake will find it.”
~ Matthew 16:24-26
Pasolini filmed the scene of the crucifixion as an unbelievably sad and poignant moment, enhanced by Mozart’s ‘Maurerische Trauermusik’, with the sequence simply ending with the excruciating pain of a mother. No particular meaning is added here, which is what gives it its forceful power. Just the sad ending of a story told with all the honesty required. At no moment is the viewer manipulated, or the work of art forcibly magnified. Honesty and faithfulness to the text are Pasolini’s guidelines. And it is what renders his film so magnificent.
We have to face it now. It goes with the Passion of Christ as it goes with our own Passion. Our life has to be relinquished. We need to remember our true identity as daughters and sons of the eternal life, of the in-finite expanse of mind, of the pure, unsullied awareness that stands within and beyond what we take to be our life experiences. This seeming life of ours, with its apparent self that we cherish and cling to, is in fact the very agent of our suffering. That’s why suffering is at the core of any spiritual endeavour. It is the knot that holds the key to our liberation. The whole spiritual game takes place in the field of our apparent suffering where life appears to be both good and bad, both pleasurable and painful, both loveable and hateful. None can relinquish suffering without putting an end to the self that we think ourself to be, with all its inherent, erroneous beliefs about itself.
We all have to carry our cross. Suffering is the ongoing point of entry for our journey — its necessary gate. The surrendering of it is our salvation. The escaping from it is our loss. Escape is never a possibility, for it is an impossible act. There is no escaping. We are in ourself, one with our experience, whatever the content of it may be. This impossibility has a meaning that is at the core of any spiritual endeavour. It reveals our very presence, our sense of ‘I’, as the only possible thing or experience there is. ‘I’ is our primal identity, our inescapable home, and by the way the very name that God has given to Itself. To recognise it experientially, in and as our very being, on the very cross of our experiences whatever they may be, is to be free of suffering, and to be crowned as identical to love itself.
So the birth or recognition of our true self implies a form of death. This death is sometimes called surrender. The surrendering to the will of god, which means the letting go of the apparent and false identity to which we are clinging at every second of our time-bound life; and the relinquishing of everything painful or pleasurable born of this illusory belief about ourself. This is the price to pay. Life is accessed through death, and suffering is its obligatory rite of passage since pain is the very colour of our separate and illusory sense of self. There are no other gates. Peace is not to be attained but only recognised as our one and only given identity. And the way for this recognition goes through the very end of the suffering self that is concealing our innermost sense of peace. The Christ on the cross represents this eternal, infinite, non-objective point of passage between a life that is based on false, illusory, and therefore suffering grounds, and a life that is lived in the absolute truth of our infinite being, this god-given identity of our self.
‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ – (With actor Enrique Irazoqui)
“My Father, if it is possible,
let this cup pass away from me;
nevertheless, not what I desire,
but what you desire.”
~ Matthew 26:39
So we all have to honour our suffering — not despise it. We all have to recognise its presence. We must let it come close and reveal its sacred significance, not push it away from ourself, which is the very cause and signature of its presence. Freedom from suffering is in suffering itself, never away from it. It is never by running after happiness that we free ourself from its pang. On the contrary, our pursuit of happiness is the very agent of suffering. Happiness is never something to attain or acquire, never something positive. We are already utterly peaceful and happy, and that can only be recognised through the death or ending of what we are not. True happiness puts our limited self to death, for this self is only able to prosper in limitation and separation — therefore in suffering — which are its very blood and bones. The spiritual message that Jesus advocated is a threat to the self. We would do anything to avoid this small death of our self. And the ones judging and putting Jesus to death, are like the echoes of our own resistance to what is implied in accessing the truth of our being. By the way, it is interesting to note that the meaning of the word ‘Pharisee’ — which describes the sect of opponents to Jesus — is ‘the separated ones’.
By respecting utterly the story of Jesus, Pasolini has made it into a story of ourself. By steeping Jesus’ life into countless faces and relationships, into a story of hate and love, whirling it into the content of experience, magnifying it with the absence of judgement or critic, with movements and music, smiles and bewilderment, sufferings and beauty, horrors and grace, Pasolini hands us simply a story of life and death. He makes us feel, beyond the many intricacies of the message, the peace to which it points, and our god-given identity resurrected from the oblivion of our own fabricated beliefs about ourself. At the moment Jesus yielded his spirit on the cross, an earthquake came which the Gospel describes in the following way: “The veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The earth quaked and the rocks were split.” Yes, there is a veil in front of the temple of God, there is a veil that obscures the glory of our true self and identity — the advent of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Film by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975)
Text by Alain Joly
‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’, 1964 – Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Based on the ‘Gospel of Matthew’ in the Bible (New Testament)
Photography by Tonino Delli Colli – Music by Luis Enríquez Bacalov
Incorporates music by J. S. Bach, W. A. Mozart, Odetta, and Missa Luba
(With actors Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, and Susanna Pasolini…)
Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was an Italian poet, writer, and filmmaker. He had a flamboyant personality and was also an intellectual and political figure. He made 12 films, including ‘Accattone’ (1961), ‘Mamma Roma’ (1962) and his last and controversial ‘Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ (1975), adapted from a book by Marquis de Sade. His movie ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’, now a classic of world cinema, won the Venice Festival Grand Jury Prize, and was nominated for three Academy Awards. His work, both influential and provocative, often engendered disapproval. Pasolini was murdered on 2 November 1975 on the beach at Ostia.
The film ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ can be seen here on YouTube…
Listen to the song ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ by Odetta (with the scene of Pasolini’s film)…
– ‘The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini: A Bilingual Edition’ – by Pier Paolo Pasolini – (University of Chicago Press)
– ‘In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology’ – by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jack Hirschman – (City Lights Publishers)
– ‘The Street Kids’ – by Pier Paolo Pasolini – (City Lights Publishers)
– The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Wikipedia)
– Pier Paolo Pasolini (Wikipedia)
– Gospel of Matthew (Wikipedia)
– Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child ((Wikipedia)
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2 thoughts on “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”
wow. What a beautiful well written and well pondered movie review. Thank you for this.
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