An unblinking articulation of doubt and revelation
The Gospel according to Matthew — Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964)
I was going to write about Jon Jost, about Angel City. I began that work, but then it sort of tapered off. Not that Angel City is an undesirable film. It’s good! There’s a strong chance I’ll return to it one of these days. If you’d like to see that piece then yeah, harass me to do it.
Worth also saying that I am very much open to commissions on film. Drop me a DM through the platform, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Etc.
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— The life of Jesus is a Rorschach test. The gospels are an interpretive surface, the skin that forms on a cup of cocoa. You can eat them. Each gospel has its own poetics. Where John is mystical and removed, Matthew is realist, documentarian. He’s also didactic, through the mouth of Jesus. This is probably why Pasolini chose Matthew’s gospel for the subject of his 1964 film. It’s why the dialogue consists entirely of dialogue from the gospel, verbatim. The interpretive heft arises from bringing these well-known fragments of language into the gestural, embodied space of film. It’s a pure adaptation. We experience the familiarity-dissimilarity of seeing what we know unfold in front of our eyes, albeit differently.
— This doesn’t render The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) a work of austere neo-realism. Time is out of joint. It hurtles this way and that. Space is bent, geometries upturned. During the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ fragments of speech are delivered through dramatic jump cuts that relocate the speaking face and shoulders of his body into mutable contexts. The hot sun. The darkness of night. The howling of a storm. This is the mount, but it also stands in for his years of preaching. Time is collapsed, acknowledging the inherent literariness of the source material. How it collapses time, how it is metaphorical.
— There’s actually something liquid and compelling about Pasolini’s life of Jesus. It is captivating. Perhaps it’s the experience of knowing the story so intimately that the surprise emerges in how he handles and interprets its moments.
— Time is out of joint. Pasolini waves away the dictates of historical authenticity. The costumes, armour, objects - they are a grab bag of historical periods and provenances. Renaissance and classical, modern and biblical. He spoke about this, of how it better served to locate The Gospel According to Matthew within the lineage of retellings of the gospel, Matthew’s text being its own interpretation of the events it depicts. Etc.
— Enrique Irazoqui. A non actor playing Jesus. But he is austere and often alarmingly loud of voice. He “comes with a sword”. He disparages those who don’t believe. His smiles are rare. Faith is a fragile possibility, but also a binary. You’re either in or you’re out. Irazoqui delivers his Jesus with something akin to pride. That’s what makes it so compelling! The apostles are like voiceless cattle. They are told that their words are not their words, but the words of God. He will speak through them. They are instruments in God’s divine logic. They eat olives, spitting out the pips. This is divine.
— John baptises Jesus. It’s a great scene. Each celebrant kneels before him, in a little pool of water among pools of water. Later, we see him only in prison; locked up by the locals. His death is unseen, but shares a lot with the expressionist angularity of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. The sword is about to fall. We cut away — the cut of the sword coincident with the editor’s slice — to the walls beyond the city. Tears roll down Jesus’ face. These moments attune us to the actual conflict within the flesh of this figure (Jesus), torn between his humanity and his divinity. Aware of fate — his, John’s, Etc — he nonetheless feels the pangs of its delivery. So does the film itself.
— Where does the gaze land (theirs)? Beyond the surface of the lens (slightly convex, protruding outward - like the eye). Jacob Burns draws a comparison between Levinas and Pasolini in this respect, speaking about the fragility of looking. He quotes from Time and the Other, where “the face signifies in the fact of summing . . . in its nudity or its destitution [all] the hazards of mortality”. It is exposure, a consideration. You could compare it to a religious icon, if you like. And Pasolini’s film is filled with these moments of unveiled, hazardous looking. The face of Mary, the face of Joseph, the face of John, the face of Jesus. They all stare not exactly into the lens but at a hazily indefinable point beyond the frame, toward not just ourselves (no, not quite) but something — an implied elsewhere — above and behind us. Taken as a whole, this forms an imprimatur of the “implied” - the ineffable “beyond the frame” that Deleuze talks about in his Cinema 1. Again, this isn’t a stark realism - locked within the immediate corrugation of bodies and flesh within a confined and articulated space. There is an elsewhere. We cannot see it. They can see it.
— While they bring their gaze toward this Other/elsewhere/beyond, they expose themselves to great moral risk. To look away is easy. It is both profoundly sublime and inherently human. It is a confrontation with mortality, otherness, danger, truth. This encounter bears with it all the thorny potentials of looking. It is powerful, because you can see. It is dangerous, because you can be seen. Nothing is given. Perhaps this is a very powerful celebration not simply of faith, but of film.
— Example. Later in life, toward his death/fate, Jesus preaches on man’s primary relationship with God. It stands above family, above fraternity. Mary arrives, his now ageing mother. She is at first pained because he rejects the mother/father, but slowly her visage transforms. She looks up toward the hazardous fact of his language and its implications. Her pain transmutes into smiling acceptance. She looks up. He looks down. Invisible lines mesh within the visual space of the film, brought together by these adjoining shots - even while a vast gulf stands between them (high/low, near/far). Mary crosses this gulf. Jesus too crosses the gulf, his walking on water. But we are not shown the pressing of feet onto wetness. Instead, we — knowing this moment approaches, will be unveiled — sit with the apostles in their boat. A black, shrouded figure appears in the frame’s far distance, engulfed by the grey-shimmer of the walked-upon sea. It is terrifying as much as it is revelatory. We tremble, almost. I did.
— The archangel, a woman, appears continually throughout the film. Never quite on time. There is room for doubt before she gives solace or comfort. Joseph, witnessing Mary’s pregnancy, cannot bear to look at her (she stands, still-faced and pleading, before the tumbledown stones of their farmhouse). He walks away, a small speck against the desolate landscape. He falls to his knees, shuts his eyes. Doubt creeps in. He is confronting the pained mortality of looking. Only then does the archangel appear to him — shocking, sudden — and reveal that Mary is bearing the son of God. He has had sufficient time to doubt. Pasolini understood the power of it (doubt), because it is precisely doubt that structures belief; its risk.
— Doubt’s inversion? Faith. The necessity of knowing-toward Jesus’ fate. Doubt flows forwards and backwards. In the garden, three of the apostles — who should be guarding Jesus as he prays — fall asleep in the malaise of the midday sun. Their bodies are restful beneath the stump of this Italian tree, more like El Greco (eyes and bodies centrifugally pouring inward) than ‘real’ life. The massacre of the young, this has all of the exploded, corporeal confusion of a river running over stones. Men and women stand as if posing for their portrait, knowing the eye looks into/toward them. The soldiers who will murder the young. The believers who wait their turn to be baptised. The elders of Jerusalem who confront him, filling the screen from edge to edge. Here is the containedness of the Ghent altarpiece, albeit inverted - pushing outwards (behind you, your body) than inward and upward, toward the seated throne of God. Patience. Pasolini achieved the effort of narrativising fate and the feeling that structures it, patience. A waiting-toward the end.
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