I would recommend watching Pasolini’s The Gospel according to Matthew only if you really fancy seeing the story of Christ played out in Italian (I did): the rewards otherwise are thin, even for Pasolini fans. The material looks good on paper: Matthew’s gospel is one of the great poetic and dramatic texts of human literature, and a wellspring of Western thought and expression. But its drama is more of action than words: most of the speech is monologue. There are flashes of genuine dialogue in the film, as when Christ debates with the Pharisees, or when Peter denies his master. The scenes with Judas and John the Baptist are good value: we see people vying with each other, rather than just being witnesses. But the great Pilate scene is thrown away, played as a ceremonial in long shot. And most of the rest of the talk is Jesus (or John, or occasionally an angel) holding forth, while others look on in awe or consternation. The visions of the holy land (Apulia) and its inhabitants are memorable, but the cinematography is more effective in portrait mode than landscape, which tends to the murky.
Enrique Irazoqui was a Spanish economics student, discovered by Pasolini at a political meeting and cast as Jesus for his first acting role at the age of 20. No pressure! He is strong on luminous intensity: he stands out convincingly from the typically rough-hewn (and unmistakably Italian-looking) cast assembled by Pasolini. His vocal power is impressive too (unless you read the small print and see that he was overdubbed by another actor). But this Jesus does have the air of a brilliant student who knows it and patronizes his classmates and teachers, with a trace of a smug smile on his lips. There’s something dispiriting in hearing the beautiful words of the Sermon on the Mount on the lips of a prig. Some viewers have managed to see the film as a Marxist document, and certainly there is something of the humourless zeal of the ideologue about this Jesus, but there’s no particular political insight or edge here, none at least that isn’t already in the Gospel.
Despite the fact that Pasolini was an atheist, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that his art is here reined in by reverence. Or perhaps respect: after all, his mother was watching - he roped her in to play the mother of God! Anyway, the enfant terrible is on his Sunday best behaviour. One might perhaps take as a warning the lengthy lists of Catholic awards with which the film comes fore-garlanded. I dread to think what other cinematic fare the berobed papal prize committee sat through: I doubt that it was a close finish with Goldfinger. Pasolini’s adherence to the Gospel text is unwavering. No sex: Mary Magdalene is anonymous (25 years to wait for Barbara Hershey). Salome’s dance consists in wafting around what looks like something you might grow on a trellis. The expression on Herod’s face at the end suggests ‘Is that it?’ The only character likely to stir any loins in this drama is the angel, who looks like someone Caravaggio would have taken an interest in.