At the Movies

Michael Wood

Nothing in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew quite lives up to its first few minutes, but getting anywhere near them is quite an achievement. And this static, mysterious movie, now showing at the BFI as part of a Pasolini season, becomes quite hectic at the end, as if impatient to finish, to run away from a story it now finds crowded rather than interesting. What is happening here, and what sort of film is this?

Let’s start with those first few minutes. A young woman stares at us, or rather slightly away from us, perhaps at someone offscreen. She has a smooth oval face, large eyes, a mildly sulky gaze, she’s not revealing any secrets. She’s very young, more a girl than a woman. The next shot shows a man, quite a bit older, receding hairline, stubbly chin. He’s not looking directly at the camera either but off to the left of the screen. He’s not happy. He’s not angry either but he looks as if he might get angry soon. There’s something like bewilderment haunting his face too. All of this interpretative attribution – sulky, angry, bewildered etc – seems appropriate, since we need to read these faces that are being isolated for us, but it’s also excessive. They are just faces. The actors are not acting, but standing there, as Sergio Leone, a later graduate of the same school of cinema, once told Clint Eastwood to do. The next shot of the girl shows her at full length. The mound at the front of her lower body makes clear she is pregnant. Her expression doesn’t change at all. Now we see the man beginning to get angry, or anxious. He turns and walks out of the stone compound where they are standing. The girl moves towards us, still calmly staring, but presumably following the man’s offscreen movements. Onscreen again, he walks away from us, up a long stony path, with low walls on both sides. The man and the girl have not shared the screen for a moment.

The man reaches the small town at the end of the path, watches some children playing, falls into a doze. Then an angel appears and tells him the story we have already put together from the images. He clearly feels better immediately, but quite rightly still seems a bit bothered. Here’s how the screenwriter describes the whole occasion:

When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

The credits tell us that the screenplay is by Pasolini, and so it is. But not in the same way that the screenplay for John Huston’s The Bible is by Christopher Fry, or for Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ by Paul Schrader. Pasolini hasn’t really written this movie, he has made excerpts from the gospel and filmed them, either as images in the manner we have just looked at, or with images, in the style of much of the rest of the film.

What happens next in the opening narrative is a good example of both. In Matthew the Magi arrive as soon as the child is delivered and named: no shepherds, no stable, no animals. ‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,/ Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ In Pasolini we see more faces: all looking as Italian as Charlton Heston, say, playing Moses, looks American. But these are ancient faces, and if we haven’t looked at the script, we wonder who they are. Just locals, perhaps, toothless villagers there to fill out the neo-realist setting. Well, some of them are, but three of them are the Magi, as we learn when they start to talk. Soon they trot off to the semi-cave where Joseph and Mary live, deposit their gifts, and leave for their far country. Then almost without transition we are in the next scene and the next: Joseph, warned in a dream, puts Mary and the child on a donkey and sets off for Egypt; Herod’s soldiers massacre all the children they can find; an angel tells Joseph that Herod is dead, it’s time to go back home; we see John the Baptist at work, haranguing the clerical establishment (‘O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’), ready to baptise a now adult Jesus.

Pasolini has taken Matthew’s jagged narrative and made it into a bleak, Brechtian epic. Again and again, we see faces – of Peter, of Judas, of Jesus himself – before we see anything else. They stare out of the frame at us, often expressionless. We stare at them and wait to know what they are looking at (apart from us, that is), what they can see inside the frame of their own world. We can often guess what it is, since we know the story, but it’s tempting to wait anyway, just to let the weird non-acting work on us. This is not a matter of the neo-realist trick of using amateurs, as if amateurs were somehow more real than professionals. ‘You are working, aren’t you?’ Brecht used to say to his actors. It’s a matter, as I have already suggested, of not acting at all, whether you are any good at it or not. It’s a matter of being photographed. The faces talk, not the expressions on them, or the absence of expression. In their differences from each other, in their actuality, their sense of belonging to a particular place and time (Italy, 1964, not Palestine, 28), they enact not the story of Christ but the mystery of the story. And there are faces that have an interest for other reasons: those of a 22-year-old Giorgio Agamben, of the novelist Natalia Ginzburg, or Pasolini’s own mother – as Mary grown older.

The talk itself in the movie – that is, all the intense verbatim quotation of Christ’s words – works as long as we can maintain the disconnect in our minds between this language and these people, as long as we don’t try to imagine, as I guess the film wants us to do, that this Christ (Enrique Irazoqui) and these followers and abusers are somehow historically or humanly plausible. The disconnect is theologically sound (this is the son of God, how could he look like anybody, talk like anybody?), and an impeccable artistic response in the Brechtian sense – this is a tangible representation of an impossible case – but we can’t keep it up for ever. And when we let go, everything lapses into bathos. The film becomes a school nativity play taking itself too seriously. The person who a moment ago had been a vivid but schematic, almost abstract representation of Jesus (or Peter or Judas or Pilate or Mary), a figure in a tapestry say, now seems to have wandered in from a Fellini film, or better, an audition for a Fellini film in its early stages of planning. And we can’t even enjoy the effect of the grotesque here, since the austere style doesn’t allow it. The figures just seem stranded, real people watching their notional identities walk awkwardly away from them.

The hectic ending of the film – Christ’s trial, crucifixion, disappearance from the tomb, reappearance to the disciples – avoids this representational problem, because it’s all motion, and a certain Brechtian abstraction returns without our having to bring it back on Pasolini’s behalf. But the cost is a marked perfunctoriness, as if the story had too much action, and left no time for waiting and watching, which have been the film’s chief and best activities, both inside and out, on the screen and in the cinema.

The last time we see the opening style powerfully at work, is when Christ returns from his agonised prayer in Gethsemane (‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me’) to find the disciples sleeping. It’s easy to see the fable here, and we all know it. The saviour keeps watch, his followers doze: this note of slackness and betrayal is everywhere in these pages of the gospel, and the sleep is just a minor, almost comic variant on Peter’s tragic denial of his master. But here, with exemplary discretion, Pasolini shows us three men huddled at the foot of a tree, not symbolically inattentive, but literally asleep like actual people, and when they wake and are rebuked they are merely, humanly puzzled. They won’t understand their defection till later, and Pasolini’s image lets us understand this, catches the moment before it goes. It’s an instance of what Godard called truth in the cinema, a piece of passing time seen passing.