When I decided to put this list together, I almost didn’t include this film. It is arguably the most popular and well-recognized film on this list. But, even though it is a favorite among critics and scholars, it is still unknown to most people, particularly in the United States. That’s a shame because it’s one of the finest and most influential films on the life of Christ ever made.
Though it is known in English as The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the original title does not include the word “Saint” (or “San” in Italian). The word was added by distributors for the film’s English language release, a pious gesture that rankled director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The revered Italian director was well known for his atheism, a fact which may seem at odds with the subject matter of the film.
But almost nothing about Il Vangelo is what anyone would expect from a Jesus film, especially in the 1960s. Filming on a very small budget in black and white, Pasolini cast mostly non-actors and scored the film with existing music from Bach, Mozart and Billie Holiday. In fact, Enrique Irazoqui, who plays Jesus, was an economics student who had never acted in a film before. While he has been in a handful of films since, he has never pursued an acting career and is today a chess champion.
Irazoqui was at first reluctant to do the film and only agreed because Pasolini convinced him that the film would promote their shared Marxist ideals. Whether it was intended solely as Marxist propaganda is questionable, however, since Pasolini gave an entirely different impression of his motivations in a letter to Lucio S. Caruso of the Pro Civitate Christiana of Assisi.
It was at the Pro Civitate Christiana that Pasolini decided to make a film based on the Gospel of Matthew. In his letter to Caruso, he states that he was so moved by reading the Gospels during his stay in Assisi that he wanted to make a film of the Gospel of Matthew “without making a script or adaptation of it.”
His expressed desire was to “translate [the Gospel of Matthew] faithfully into images, following its story without any omissions or additions” with dialogue that was “strictly Saint Matthew, without even a single explanatory or connecting sentence, because no image or word could ever attain the poetic heights of the text.”
If this all seems a bit pious for an atheist, it may be because Pasolini had a complicated relationship with faith. “If you know that I am an unbeliever,” he said, “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.
An atheist making a Jesus film is one thing, especially if he sees the story of Christ as an expression of his political ideologies. But, Pasolini’s telling of the Gospel narrative seems too reverent for such an explanation to suffice. Indeed, he could well have told the story of Jesus’ life and omitted all references to the supernatural, the miraculous and the Divine. Instead, however, Il Vangelo begins with Joseph’s discovery that Mary is pregnant
The scene proceeds silently, Joseph simply turning and walking away after seeing Mary’s protruding belly. But, as he stops and sits down to take a nap, he is awakened. A girl in white has replaced children that had been noisily playing nearby and the first words of the film come from the lips of an angel: “Joseph, son of David, take unto thee Mary, thy wife. That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. She shall bear a son, and thou shalt call him Jesus. He shall save his people from their sins.”
The next line is narration over Joseph’s return walk to Mary. The words are those of the prophet Isaiah: “A virgin shall be with child and bear a son and they shall call him Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’” And so, in its first scene, Il Vangelo includes the supernatural (the angel), the miraculous (the virgin birth) and the Divine (the references to the Holy Ghost and God with us).
Right up front, Pasolini takes a decidedly reverent approach that does not flag throughout the film. He shows us Jesus performing miracles, such as the healing of lepers and the demon-possessed, even walking on the water. He also continues to portray angels, including those announcing Christ’s resurrection at the empty tomb. When Jesus is baptized, the voice of God comes from above saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” There are several Jesus films which omit any or all of these and more than one that seeks far more strenuously than Il Vangelo to humanize Jesus at the expense of his Divinity.
Pasolini’s Jesus is human and grounded, to be sure. One might expect Pasolini to agree with the words of Martin Scorsese, director of The Last Temptation of Christ, who said, “When my Jesus walks into a room, he doesn’t glow in the dark.” Yet, Pasolini (like Scorsese) makes no attempt to subtract from a view of Jesus as Divine, even if his own beliefs are at times at odds with the Scriptural dialogue of his film—specifically the many references to Jesus as the Son of God.
On his view of Christ, Pasolini said, “To put it very 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 lofty, strict and ideal as to exceed the common terms of humanity.”
Whether Pasolini’s beliefs were consistent with doctrinaire Christianity or not, it is this image of Christ as both human and divine, with neither edging out the other, that has probably been Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo‘s most enduring legacy.
Far from the grandeur and splendor of Hollywood Bible films, this simply constructed yet richly beautiful motion picture was a startling departure from its contemporaries and predecessors in the genre. Its vision of a human Christ in a real, unrehearsed world have influenced many Jesus films since, but its handmade quality, its earthy realism remains almost unparalleled.
Grounded in humanity but drenched in more unedited Scripture than any Jesus film before it, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo is a stark presentation of the power of the Gospel to affect even one who claims not to believe.
The next film I’ll be discussing in this series will be Son of Man, a 1969 episode of the BBC Television series The Wednesday Play. It will bring us an even more radical portrayal of Jesus that is much more rarely seen. And, if you haven’t yet, check out the entire Ten Jesus Films You’ve Never Seen series.