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Vatican ‘canonizes’ Pasolini’s St. Matthew

A scene from Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew.

As yet another sign that the times they are a-changin’, the Vatican yesterday declared that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) “...is the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema.”

The news, published by the Vatican in its own L‘Osservatore Romano, came as a quite a surprise because Pasolini’s Vangelo (1964), in spite of winning the Venice Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize and having been nominated for three Oscars and a multiplicity of honours, was publicly condemned by religious leaders upon its release, citing it as “blasphemous and heretic.”

Some observers went as far as noting that the film’s “resurrection” is the result of Pope Francis’ more tolerant attitude than that of his predecessors’ toward issues otherwise considered taboo or simply heretic.

Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of L‘Osservatore Romano, declared that “The Vatican’s praise (of Pasolini’s movie) goes to further prove Pope Francis’ mercy.” It was a clear reference to Pope Francis’ revolutionary revision of issues which the Church had kept under wraps or just silenced or censored since the papacy of John XXIII.

From film maudit to “work of art” and “the best Jesus Christ movie ever,” Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew was produced and directed by a filmmaker who happened to read the text by chance in 1962. In 1964, an enthralled Pasolini went location scouting to Palestine. He was deeply disappointed because he found that the Biblical sites had changed so much and had not been properly preserved that they would be no good for his movie.

Production moved back to Italy, where Pasolini rediscovered Sicily, which made a perfect setting for his vision of a Jesus Christ more human than audiences had seen before, a man just like any other, afraid of dying, asking God not to let him become the victim of crucifixion to save humankind. The story of Pasolini’s sojourn in Palestine is retold in the documentary Sopralluoghi in Palestina per il vangelo secondo Matteo (1965).

Pasolini, a Marxist atheist, publicly acknowledged that, in spite of his convictions, he could not eschew two thousand years of Christianity, a legacy which, of course, was pretty much alive in his mind and in his soul.

“I am anticlerical (I’m not afraid to say it!)... but it would be insane on my part to deny the powerful influence religion has exerted on me,” he was quoted as saying.

And as for St. Matthew’s Gospel itself, Pasolini assured with almost religious conviction that, “No other words will ever attain the poetic heights of this Biblical story.”

According to Pasolini, his movie required no script: it was just a matter of transposing text to image. Closely respecting the Italian neorrealist style, Pasolini did not resort to professional actors.

Jesus was played by Enrique Irazoqui, a young Catalonian anarchist, and the ageing Mary was portrayed by Pasolini’s own mother. Pasolini’s relatives and friends played the disciples and the remaining characters.

The Vatican’s own Film Library keeps a 16mm print of The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Realizing that the print was soon deteriorating, it was decided that the film should be restored and digitized.

Herald with online media

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