Friday, 15 August 2014

Probably the best movie about Jesus

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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!

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.”
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:
“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. [...]

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.”
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!

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.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Who are children of God?

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Catholics? Christians? “Good” people?


In total disagreement with the author of yesterday’s “Thoughts on today’s Mass,” distributed in my parish, who said that “we are not naturally children of God: we become so by baptism, when God adopts us as his own. Otherwise to call God our Father would be a bold presumption,” I would like to show that the Catholic Church teaches that every single human being is a child of God. Using the idea of being God’s child as the basis of separation, the basis of an “us,” as opposed to a ”them,” is perverse and absolutely not what the Catholic Church teaches, in spite of the official-looking material handed out in some of its parishes.

To begin with, Jesus - the Son of God - himself recognizes familial status universally, when he says that “whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:50) and St. Paul too picks up on the key being adherence to God’s will: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14).

That such adherence to the will of God is open to everyone - whether they believe in God or not - and that it is at the heart of what the Catholic Church believes, is very clear from Nostra Aetate, the declaration issued during the Second Vatican Council by Pope Paul VI, which says in its closing paragraph:
“We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.”
And this is also reflected in what the Catechism teaches about the opening words of the Our Father, the prayer Jesus taught:
“God’s love has no bounds, neither should our prayer. Praying “our” Father opens to us the dimensions of his love revealed in Christ: praying with and for all who do not yet know him, so that Christ may “gather into one the children of God.” God’s care for all men and for the whole of creation has inspired all the great practitioners of prayer; it should extend our prayer to the full breadth of love whenever we dare to say “our” (§2793)
Note in particular the thought-provoking idea in the above of Catholics praying with those who don’t know Jesus. Even in a fundamentally religious act the desire of Catholics is to be united with those who don’t share their beliefs!

And if the above weren’t enough to categorically declare that Catholics consider every human being to be a child of God and therefore also their brother or sister, let’s see what the last three popes had to say on the subject:
  1. “We must never forget that every person, from the moment of conception to the last breath, is a unique child of God and has a right to life.” Pope Saint John Paul II (Address at the Ceremony of the Anointing Of The Sick, Southwark’s Cathedral, London, 28 May 1982)

  2. “God is the origin of the existence of every creature, and the Father in a unique way of every human being: he has a unique, personal relationship with him or her.” Pope Benedict XVI (Sunday Angelus address, 8 January 2012)

  3. “Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!” Pope Francis (Audience to Representatives of the Communications Media, 16th March 2013 - the day after his election!)

  4. “Every human being is a child of God! He or she bears the image of Christ! We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved.” Pope Francis (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 5 August 2013)
I rest my case.