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The Gospel
According To St Matthew

cast: Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, Susanna Pasolini, Mercello Morante, and Mario Socrate

director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

137 minutes (U) 1964 widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
At least this is one synopsis I shouldn't have to spoon out. It is queer to note how readily acceptable is the usage of the phrase 'according to' as an appendage to belief. Accordance is highly suggestive of cautious acceptance and the potential for lies yet, there it is, the phrase to be found in international translation at the hearty core of the Bible. Pasolini settled on the book of Matthew over the other three gospels on the judicious basis that the accounts of the other authors were substantially inferior or lacked the poetry, pace and content. Only did he transport the Salome episode from Mark and stray in several tempting verses from Isaiah, otherwise, the dialogue is ad verbatim holy text, making Pasolini's script credit virtual blasphemy.
   As if in odd accursedness it is the transferred material that sits most uncomfortably and unconvincingly, disrupting the ambience of the film as if to send a message of non-corruption of the riveting word that was Matthew's take, the lines from Isaiah dragged in on a pointedly clumsy referral and Salome proving a lacklustre, pretty child falling apathetically short of the allure and evocation that could have granted her the prized head of the Baptist. Even a thus labelled lapsed Catholic like myself can be drawn into the cruel intelligence and hypnotic command of the words of Jesus Christ as recalled via Saint Matthew, Pasolini and the subtitling of Monsignor Ronald Knox, though not enough to send me back into the reverential, unquestioning genuflexions of my childhood; that really would be the first step towards the beatification of Pasolini.
   One suspects that the director admired the text for its splendid tyrannical instruction out of the mouth of the messiah and powerful and compelling indeed is the montage that runs several minutes as Christ (Enrique Irazoqui) rattles out to a background of differing textures of landscape and shades of day and night a fantastic barrage of quotes so familiar that they have absurdly lost their edge, but matched by phrases as uncompromising yet chilling for their lesser familiarity. Many of the statements gall in their fascism, the prohibition of questioning, "You shall not put the lord your god to the proof" yet one must prove himself to the Lord their god. It is also apparently "heathen to busy yourself with what to wear" could be useful if a religious spouse is taking too long getting ready to go out. And in a dizzying barrage of words it is also useful to occasionally throw your chosen ones with a befuddling phrase like "For my yoke is hung and my burden is light" as the translation has it. Still, this is entrancing stuff, and strangely beautiful rather than the disturbing that it really ought to be, an insight into the role mesmerism possesses as a tool to religious conversion.
   The cast is largely amateur, discovered among the Cantabrian communities of Southern Italy, the young Mary (Margherita Caruso) selected for her oval face of serene and ethereal beauty and innocence, poorly replaced later in adulthood by the director's mother Susanna Pasolini, bearing no likeness to the younger Mary. The opening shot is an uneasy close-up of the face of Joseph (Marcello Morante) in stony fixed shock upon the announcement of Mary's pregnancy; a stunning reintroduction to the greatest story ever told.
   The young Spaniard taking the role of Christ is unassuming to begin with, but the voice has the attractive snap to it that coupled with that being said does indeed command, though not even a Jack Nicholson could have convincingly wrought the unswerving rudeness of Christ's approach and collection of his disciples. Given the Moorish infusion to the Spanish bloodline it is hardly surprising that Enrique Irazoqui has become the critics favourite Christ even if the general public prefers the Salford lad Robert Powell for their favourite Palestinian resistance fighter. Irazoqui would make only potted subsequent roles in feature films, his expressiveness never a match for his voice sadly and the title that went with his subsequent movie appearance proposes a humorous or ironic quick shift away from type in Jacinto Esteva and Joaquin Jorda's Dante No Es Unicamente Severo (1967).
   The black and white cinematography hides an unacceptable green lushness. Even so the monochrome landscapes are beauteously captured by regular Pasolini cohort Tonino Delli Colli while Danilo Donati is kept the busiest with the costume design. The music is often upsettingly inappropriate in context, ranging from the Congelese 'Missa Luba' that eventually in its recall to service in the running time wins one over with its gloriousness. That boldness is unfortunately offset with the greater boldness by inclusion also of some wonderful Prokofiev and the jazz refrains 'Motherless Child' and 'My Oh My'. It may have been the case that Hollywood costume epics of the time had soundtracks and orchestral support comprising of instruments that did not exist in the biblical day but if Pasolini is poking fun at such scoring to Hollywood productions he is here interfering with a beautifully translated tale by so doing.
   The flaws are few but loud. This is the finest adaptation of the great magical realist work and is a suitably earnest abbreviation and antidote for those who have not got the hours annually to devote to Zefferelli's awesome opus.
   There is a smattering of extras on the DVD, chiefly filmographies for Pasolini, Frazoqui, and Alfonso Gatto (who portrays Andrew), with useful film notes supplied by David Parkinson. Some may recall the film to have been screened by Channel Four, one Good Friday afternoon in the 1980s, stunned at the massacre of the innocents as soldiers cast swaddling babies into the air and caught them on their swords.
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