The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Of course the greatest cinematic telling of the story of Christ comes from a Communist, Freudian, homosexual, anti-consumerist, pro-subproletariat Italian atheist with an almost romantic nostalgia for Catholic belief. Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew tells the story that any Christian knows all too well: Jesus (nonprofessional actor Enrique Irazoqui) is born to a virgin Mary (Margherita Caruso), is baptized, spends 40 days meditating, delivers his sermon on the mount, instructs his 12 apostles, castigates the Pharisees, enters Jerusalem and drives out all who sold and bought in the temple and overturns the money changers, is questioned, tried, and crucified. For Pasolini, though, this story is not some parable to be infused with glorifying Christian symbolism or some other reverential nonsense. No, this story connects with Pasolini because he sees Jesus as a rabble-rousing revolutionary.
While some of the hard-line Leftism of Pasolini's 1960s movies (see: Porcile, Teorema, the blithe and frankly hilarious Uccellacci e uccellini) and his still extreme 1975 Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom may feel dated when seen through today's eyes, his cavalier combination of earthy neorealism, painterly images (thanks to Pasolini's longtime cinematographer collaborator, the great Tonino Delli Colli), and an eclectic soundtrack in Matthew create an ancient-set story that moves with the asymmetrical rhythms and idea collisions of contemporary poetry. Nonprofessional actors are used throughout, delivering fairly mannered readings of dialog that is lifted almost directly from the Gospel itself. The process makes for a movie neither reverent nor reality-based, instead creating a purely cinematic space that almost rescues the story of Jesus from nearly 2,000 years of oppressive propaganda. Almost.
Pasolini's daft music choices really heighten this impression, peppering this visually vérité movie with arresting anachronisms: scoring an early scene with the African-American spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," beautifully using the Missa Luba "Gloria" in another scene (a Congolese musical version of the Latin mass), turning to Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky for the massacre of the innocents, and most spellbindingly, using Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music when Jesus visits John the Baptist. Of course, Pasolini throws in his typical earthly bravado, too (as in, his actual mother plays the older Mary), but it doesn't hamper a rather remarkable cinematic feat. The Gospel According to St. Matthew tells a religious story without ever condescending to embrace religion, and it's moving whether or not belief is something you harbor or abhor.