Franco Zefirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”? No. (Phew!)
Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”? No, not that one either. (Phew, again!)
No, “probably the best movie about Jesus” is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.”
“Says who?,” you ask.
Well, none other than the Vatican’s own newspaper, l’Osservatore Romano, which in a review on the 50th anniversary of the movie’s premiere had the following to say (in the words of Emilio Ranzato):
“Whether it be a movie about a crisis in progress or about its overcoming, The Gospel according to Matthew remains a masterpiece, and probably the best movie about Jesus ever made. It is certainly the one in which his words ring out most fluidly, in the most elevated and the most powerful way. Hewn out of bare rock, like the best moments of Pasolinian cinema.”But, what makes this movie the pinnacle of depicting Jesus’ life? The l’Osservatore Romano review elaborates:
“The director follows the Gospel pages to the letter and doesn’t shy away even from talking about miracles, which he presents with an inspiration worthy of a believer. In this way, on the one hand confirming the validity and power of the Christian word, but, on the other hand, giving it a more down-to-earth context in which to spread, the director clearly intends to give a thrust both towards the marxist and ecclesial worlds. At the same time, however, and maybe unexpectedly, he finds peace in a place that is equidistant from these two poles. Surely there have been few other times in the history of cinema where a representation that plays on sacred strings, or even only mythical and epic ones, has been built on such a sincere realism.”So, what drove this marxist (and atheist and gay) director to making a movie about Jesus? He explains this himself - during the year before the movie’s release - in a letter to Lucio Caruso of the Pro Civitate Christiana of Assisi (a Christian volunteer organization):
“The first time I visited all of you in Assisi, I found the Gospels at my bedside: your diabolical calculation!His answer to the question of why he, a non-believer, had made a film which dealt with religious themes, at a press conference in 1966, is also illuminating:
That day, in your place, I read them from beginning to end, like a novel.
And in the exaltation of reading - as you know, it’s the most exalting thing one can read! - there came to me among other things, the idea of making a film... as the days and later the weeks went by, the idea kept getting more overwhelming and exclusive. It threw in the shade all the other ideas for work I had in my head, it weakened and devitalised them.
And it alone remained, alive and thriving within me... my idea is this: to follow the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, point by point, without making a script or adaptation of it. To translate it faithfully into images, following its story exactly without any omissions or additions.
The dialogue too should be strictly that of Saint Matthew, without even a single explanatory or connecting sentence, because no image or inserted word could ever attain the poetic heights of the text... to put it very simply and frankly, I don’t believe that Christ is the son of God, because I am not a believer - at least not consciously. But I believe that Christ is divine. I believe that is, that in him humanity is so kind and ideal as to exceed the common terms of humanity. For this reason I say “poetry” - an irrational instrument to express this irrational feeling of mine for Christ.”
“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.”But, how does one who is not a Christian create a piece of art that is recognized by Christians as their own, and not only that, but a masterpiece? Here Pasolini’s answer is very telling:
“[T]he rule that dominated the making of the film was the rule of analogy. That is, I found settings that were not reconstructions but that were analogous to ancient Palestine. The characters, too—I didn’t reconstruct characters but tried to find individuals who were analogous. I was obliged to scour southern Italy, because I realized that the pre-industrial agricultural world, the still feudal area of southern Italy, was the historical setting analogous to ancient Palestine. One by one I found the settings that I needed for The Gospel. I took these Italian settings and used them to represent the originals. I took the city of Matera, and without changing it in any way, I used it to represent the ancient city of Jerusalem. Or the little caverns of the village between Lucania and Puglia are used exactly as they were, without any modifications, to represent Bethlehem. And I did the same thing for the characters. The chorus of background characters I chose from the faces of the peasants of Lucania and Puglia and Calabria. [...]Whether intentionally or not, this way of analogy is precisely Jesus’ own method. The employment of parables, and his teaching in its entirety rely fundamentally on analogy. Here is God - the infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, wholly transcendent and other - speaking to his creatures, who are addled with limitations, and the only possible way is that of analogy, since the listeners have no direct access to the ultimate realities that the speaker is trying to convey. At the heart of this method is in fact the very life of the Trinity, where each Person empties itself so as to receive the other and fully gives itself to the other that is ready to receive them. This self-othering1 nature of God is the basis of analogy, which Pasolini applied masterfully and I would like to argue that his work resonates with Christians not only because of the subject matter, but because of the method that begot it. And I have to say that I am a great fan of it too!
In reality, my method consists simply of being sincere, honest, penetrating, precise in choosing men who psychological essence is real and genuine. Once I’ve chosen them, then my work is immensely simplified. I don’t have to do with them what I have to do with professional actors: tell them what they have to do and what they haven’t to do and the sort of people they are supposed to represent and so forth. I simply tell them to say these words in a certain frame of mind and that’s all. And they say them.”
To conclude, I’d just like to share a fragment of the dialogue between the Franciscan Fr. Ugolino Vagnuzzi and Pier Paolo Pasolini that took place in June ’68 and that Fr. Vagnuzzi published a couple of days ago. It starts with Pasolini’s words:
““I saw Christ with two “eyes,” one being mine - of a rational man, modern and a lay person; the other being the look of a simple person with great faith. These two visions complement each other, I’ll explain: I saw him as the Son of God, mystically, religiously, but at the same time I saw him as a revolutionary.”
I asked him [writes Fr. Ugolino] whether before or after that Christ was so successful in the cinema, he had said something to him.
“Religious convictions or non-belief are like blocks of quartz. The reasons that make these blocks dissolve is always mysterious, so I can say neither yes nor no to you.”
I was deeply moved when he then turned to me with these words:
“You see, dear Brother, you and I are one on one and the other on the other bank of a river. A bridge unites us where we can meet. Both of us must travel some distance. I am certain that you will not say no to taking these steps, which are precious to me.””
1 A term coined by my überbestie CS.