Criterion Prediction #14: The Gospel According to St. Matthew, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Cast: Enrique Irazoqui, Enrico Maria Salerno (voice), Margherita Caruso, Mario Socrate and Settimio Di Porto
Synopsis: The subsequent storyline is pretty straightforward and the title of the film (more or less) summarizes the plot. This is The Gospel According to St. Matthew adapted from the writings of the apostle Matthew, transformed into a screenplay by the director. To be brief but accurate the film tells the story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth; his birth in Palestine during the Roman Empire, his teachings, his followers, his death, and his resurrection. When asked why he chose St. Matthew, Pasolini replied, “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental.”
Critique: Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a revelation in cinema and is widely celebrated as a work of art as well as the most accurate depiction of Jesus on film.
Pasolini’s film succeeds in surpassing all the Technicolor mega-epics before and after it by remaining faithful to the material of the titular gospel with its neorealist sensibilities.
The threadbare budget, nonprofessional actors (including the director’s mother), black and white cinematography and complete lack of spectacle and sensationalism that is frequently associated with Biblical epics are what make this film so unique and timeless. The most infamous and oft-mentioned note is that the writer and director was an openly gay Marxist, and an atheist whose movies had been the subject of controversy throughout his career. His dedication to the subject is genuine, and the film is considered by the Vatican one of the greatest 45 films ever made and is appraised by believers and atheists alike to be a superlative cinematic achievement. Many people applaud the movies “documentary style” that is synonymous with Italian neorealism, but I feel like people tend to overlook the Pasolini’s spirited aesthetic sensibilities that underscore this deeply felt film from one of Italy’s most extraordinary artists.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Now that the later era of Pasolini’s career is represented by the Criterion Collection’s release of his Trilogy of Life series, they should bring the Pasolini omnibus full circle with a restored version of The Gospel According to St. Matthew. For years, Pasolini’s only title in the Criterion catalog was his controversial film Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom, which was OOP for so long the film became something of a white whale among collectors. The inclusion of The Gospel According to St. Matthew would fully round out the span of his career as well as showcase his diversity as a director. Compared to Salò (a notoriously repellent fascist allegory) The Gospel According to St. Matthew is about as diverse as one can imagine. The film is available on DVD, but it’s been cut, recut, dubbed, and colorized; it’s treated as if it were a public domain release. The Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation based out of Rome has total control over the rights of the film, and the most faithful release from Water Bearer Films is inherently problematic. It’s also one of the harder versions of the movie to find the embedded subtitles are pale white and hard to read, the image and sound are choppy and by request of the Pasolini Foundation doesn’t have any chapters to encourage people to watch the films in its entirety. Remember, this is the preferred version too, which is all the more reason for Criterion to give this film the release it deserves. It’s hard to determine how the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation will feel about the rights of the movie seeing as their particular attitude towards DVD chapters. However, The Criterion Collection makes love to the movies they release, so they shouldn’t have any qualms here. Long story short, this is an important film, and it deserves better than this.