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Monday, April 09, 2012

In a Mysterious Way

If you have never seen director Pier Paolo Pasolini's movie The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) I urge you to do so. I had been meaning to see it myself for many years but, notwithstanding the judgment of the critics, put it off, hesitant, leery even, over what it might contain given Pasolini's notoriety as a firebrand Marxist atheistic hedonist. I finally got over my qualms, however, and watched it last night. It is an extraordinary achievement.

Pasolini cast no professional actors in this picture, instead using local amateurs, friends and family (his own mother plays, beautifully and movingly, the older Virgin Mary). He shot the picture in southern Italy (rejecting the Holy Land as "commercialized") and put together a wonderfully eclectic score wherein I recognized the music of Bach (Mass in B-minor and Saint Matthew Passion), Mozart (Masonic Funeral Music), Prokofieff (score to--ironically--Alexander Nevsky), the singer Odetta and a Congolese setting of the Mass, Missa Luba.  The dialogue (in Italian), with a few minor exceptions, is directly and exclusively from Matthew's Gospel (the DVD I watched had English subtitles using the King James version, an inspired choice). Combined with astonishing performances from the non-professional cast, we have, in my opinion, the greatest Gospel depiction in cinema, unlike any other I have seen. It moved me to the quick.

Pasolini was brutally murdered at the age of 53, the result of rough trade with a 17-year-old male hustler. I suppose it is a wonder, given his notorious and sordid existence (his last picture, the graphically extreme Salo, made shortly before his death, would likely have had no trouble passing Justice Potter Stewart's test), Pasolini could also be the author of such a moving and loving work of religious art like The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. For me, however, he also serves as a reminder all of us have God in us and thus are capable of godly things. Whatever Pasolini's ultimate fate, let us give thanks and praise to God for the good things he did and pray for the repose of his soul. A Happy Easter to all.

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