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The Gospel According to St. Matthew (film)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a 1964 Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. It is
a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, from the Nativity through the Resurrection.
The dialogue is primarily taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew, as Pasolini felt that "images
could never reach the poetic heights of the text. He reportedly chose Matthew's Gospel over the
others because he had decided that "John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too
According to Barth David Schwartz's book Pasolini Requiem (1992), the impetus for the film took
place in 1962. Pasolini had accepted Pope John XXIII's invitation for a new dialogue with
nonCatholic artists, and subsequently visited the town of Assisi to attend a seminar at a Franciscan
monastery there. The papal visit caused traffic jams in the town, leaving Pasolini confined to his hotel
room there, he came across a copy of the New Testament. Pasolini read all four Gospels straight
through, and he claimed that adapting a film from one of them "threw in the shade all the other ideas
for work I had in my head." Unlike previous cinematic depictions of Jesus' life, Pasolini's film does
not embellish the biblical account with any literary or dramatic inventions, nor does it present an
amalgam of the four Gospels (subsequent films which would adhere as closely as possible to one
Gospel account are 1979's Jesus, based on the Gospel of Luke, and 2003's The Gospel of John).
Given Pasolini's wellknown reputation as an atheist, a homosexual, and a Marxist, the reverential
nature of his film was surprising (especially as Pasolini had previously been sentenced to jail for the
allegedly blasphemous and obscene content of his contribution to the 1963 anthology film
RoGoPaG, although the sentence was suspended). At a press conference in 1966, Pasolini was
asked why he, an unbeliever, had made a film which dealt with religious themes his response was,
"If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an
unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief." The film begins with an
announcement that it is "dedicato alla cara, lieta, familiare memoria di Giovanni XXIII"
("dedicated to the dear, joyous, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII"), as John XXIII was
indirectly responsible for the film's creation, but had died before its completion.
Pasolini employed some of the techniques of Italian neorealism in the making of his film. Most of the
actors he hired were amateurs: Enrique Irazoqui (Jesus) was a 19yearold economics student from
Spain, and the rest of the cast were mainly locals from Barile, Matera and Massafra, where the film
was shot (Pasolini visited the Holy Land but found the locations unsuitable and "commercialized").
Pasolini cast his own mother, Susanna, as the elderly mother of Jesus. The cast also included noted
intellectuals such as writers Enzo Siciliano and Alfonso Gatto, poets Natalia Ginzburg and Juan
Rodolfo Wilcock, and philosopher Giorgio Agamben.
The score of the film is eclectic, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach (e.g. Mass in B Minor and St
Matthew Passion) to Odetta ("Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child") and the "Gloria" from
the Congolese Missa Luba. The look of the characters is also eclectic and, in some cases,
anachronistic, resembling artistic depictions of different eras (the costumes of the Roman soldiers
and the Pharisees, for example, are influenced by Renaissance art, whereas Jesus has been likened
to Byzantine art as well as the work of Expressionist artist Georges Rouault).
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The film was widely touted in Italy, and proved to be one of Pasolini's most popular, both with
critics and the public. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times gave the film a rave review upon its
American release in 1966:
Ever since the Venice Film Festival in 1964, we'd been hearing exciting information
" about Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St.…read more
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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...[Jesus'] presence and appearance are unusual in terms of traditional depictions. Like
most of Jewish men of his time, he wears his hair short none of the flowing locks of
holy cards.…read more