Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pasolini's Gospel

I remember seeing Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964) at a rundown arthouse theater in Columbia, South Carolina.  I was in my late twenties, still nominally a christian, though vaguely aware that I then liked everything about christianity but the theology and the christians.

If I were ever to consider myself a christian again, it would be along the lines of Tolstoy's christian anarchism or Pasolini's austere cinema poetry--a gospel inflected with the director's marxism, atheism, and homosexuality.  It was Pasolini's film, in fact, that convinced me that St Matthew's gospel, the most radical of the four, was the most humane and beautiful version of the life and teachings of Jesus.

Like Sergei Eisenstein, another commie pinko fag (literally), Pasolini builds his narrative and theme on the power of faces in tight close-up.  Not the glamorous faces of Hollywood, but the faces of ordinary people.  Like Eisenstein, Pasolini relied on the evocative power of the faces of his extras, whom he cast for their ability to convey whichever emotions the film needed at its key moments.  Casting of the larger roles in Matteo followed the model of neorealism, as Pasolini cast non-actors as the biblical characters--ordinary wage-laborers as the disciples and a half-Basque, half-Jewish university student as Jesus. 

The human face is the soul of humanism, I think.  Renaissance painters seemed to think the same thing.  The power of Pasolini's version of the Jesus story comes from his rejection of Cinemascope and Technicolor "epic" in favor of stark black-and-white compositions.  Dialogue is stripped to a minimum.  Many scenes are silent, with the director relying on the fact that perhaps no story is as familiar to his audience as this one, so exposition is superfluous.  And whereas Mel Gibson (like the greater part of christendom) relishes Jesus's blood, Pasolini pays homage to Jesus's teachings, including the sermon on the mount in its entirety, the camera tightly on the face of the actor playing Jesus, for the greater part of the long recital.   The crucifixion and resurrection take up less screen time than this sermon's eloquent quietism, and much of the drama of the climactic execution centers on its effect on those who loved the man Jesus, notably his mother, Mary, played by Pasolini's mother.

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