Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Gospel According To Saint Matthew

The Gospel According to Matthew [c. 70-100]
Revised Standard Version
Author unknown

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew [1964]
Written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Gospel According to Matthew is one of the four versions of the life of Jesus of Nazareth found in the Christian Bible. Although church tradition attributes its authorship to the apostle Matthew, a tax collector whom Jesus calls to His service, biblical scholars tend to dispute this. Despite one's views on authorship, for simplicity's sake "Matthew" is often used as shorthand for "the unknown author of Matthew." The translation I have chosen for review is the Revised Standard Version, which dispenses with the archaic "thee-and-thou" language of the King James Version.

The life of Jesus as it is popularly understood is compiled from a variety of sometimes conflicting sources. There are even discrepancies between the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; stories that appear in one book may appear at a different time in another book---or not at all. For instance, in Matthew there is no birth in a manger. Lazarus is not raised from the dead, and Jesus does not change water into wine.

Matthew's audience is a Jewish audience whom he is trying to sway to accept Jesus as the messiah, the Christ. As such, Matthew takes great pains to show how the life of Jesus occurs in accordance with Jewish messianic prophecy. Often, after something has happened, Matthew will quote the bible verse which prophesied the event. One of the themes repeated in the teaching of Matthew's Jesus is how the law of the God of the Jews has changed. Jesus preaches how His coming has fulfilled the old law and brings about a new law. And if you thought YHVH had some hard rules to follow, check out what His son's teaching. Jesus basically forbids earthly wealth. He forbids divorce, hate, and lust towards anyone but your spouse. He preaches absolute passivity and forgiveness. And, He often reminds His followers, if you break these new laws and/or do not accept Me as the Son of God, you will be burnt in Gehenna!

Jesus blasts the contemporary Jewish religious order, the Pharisees and, to a lesser extent, the Sadducees. The Pharisees conspire against Jesus, eventually handing him over to the Roman authority Pontius Pilate. Pilate reluctantly sentences Jesus to death by crucifixion. (Pilate's reluctance is a considerable bone of contention. Historical records show him to be an efficient, if not ruthless, Roman governor. His unwillingness to get rid of a Jewish rabble-rouser seems highly unlikely. But that, as they say, is the "gospel truth"....) Jesus dies and on the third day is raised. He instructs his apostles to preach the good news (the gospel) to people of all nations, for, He claims, there will be some in this generation who shall not taste of death.

Well, not quite. Several generations have tasted of death since the time of Jesus's preaching. In the intervening years, His radical new brand of Judaism developed into Christianity, ultimately becoming the state religion of the very empire which executed Him. Many artists in a variety of media have represented events from the life of Christ in art. By 1964, there had already been several film versions. What is initially most striking about this Matthew is its writer/director. Pasolini was a gay Marxist atheist. He had spent his career to this point writing about the outcasts and the downtrodden of society: the poor, the hustlers, the whores, and the petty criminals of Italy.

Perhaps this is the attraction of the Jesus story. While the film is faithful to its source, it is unlike any previous (or, for that matter, future) bible films. It is a strikingly uncinematic film. The picture book vistas and Renaissance painting characters of previous movies are replaced with desolate squalor and simple, plain actors. Even the Angel of the Lord and Satan are rendered without any of the special effects which one would expect of their stature as divine (resp. infernal) beings. Jesus does perform His miracles (walking on water, exorcising the demoniacs, healing the afflicted, feeding the multitudes, etc.), but, again, these feats are done with the minimum of camera trickery. Following this style, Pasolini cuts out Christ's transfiguration, wherein he meets with the souls of Moses and Elijah Jedi-style.

So what's left? Quite a bit actually. Pasolini faithfully displays the major teachings and parables. Stripped of the wonder of their attendant miracles, it is often surprising to hear how radical Christ's teachings are. Perhaps that is what Pasolini is emphasizing here: Christ was a deliberately anti-bourgeois revolutionary leader. He constantly rails against the hypocrisy of the ruling class and severely disparages those who seek worldly things.

But how do the Jews come across in all of this, you ask me. Consider that the infamous "blood libel" verse, where the Jews cry out that the blood of Christ is on their hands and on the hands of their children, comes from Matthew. The line is included in the film. And, as often occurs, Rome is all but absolved of blame (which is ridiculously historically incorrect of course, but, again, that's what's in the book). The original text's wisps of antisemitism (as we understand the term today) remain in the film, but Pasolini does nothing to emphasize them. The offense to be taken from the film will depend on the viewer.

At 142 minutes, Pasolini's Matthew is something of an endurance to get through. Outside of an intermission at the one hour mark, it makes little effort at being viewer friendly. Those familiar with the director's gruesome Saló will be surprised at how bloodless the humiliation and death of Christ are. Pasolini even cuts out the post-trail flogging which so invigorated Gibson's Passion. Just as in the original text, it's the message, not the life or messy death of the messenger, that counts.

Here endeth the lesson. Go now in peace.

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