Movie of the Week: The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini 1964
Old Testament: Psalm 139
New Testament: Ephesians 2:8-10
Week #5 Movie Introduction Guide: The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Producer/Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Premiere: September 4, 1964 Venice Film Festival; February 17, 1966
Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Parent Guide/Rating: NR (light gore and violence typical of these movies)
Watch The Gospel According to St. Matthew at https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6kf3qx
Before we continue our journey forward with contemporary movies about Jesus, we are going to pause and go back in time a couple of decades in our focus on the Italian Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Pasolini was a poet, novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker – and also a Marxist and an atheist. Pasolini’s background and ideology differ so vastly from the other filmmakers we’ve covered, we are sure to see a profoundly different image of Jesus portrayed. How would such a man come to make a film about Jesus anyway?
The story is told that Pasolini was staying in Assisi – a city in Central Italy during a visit by Pope John XXIII. The pope caused such a traffic jam (we were just there last summer – it wouldn’t take much!) that he was forced to remain in his hotel. As he was bored in his room and looking for something to read, he happened on a New Testament and began reading. He was intrigued by the gospel of Matthew and decided at that time to bring the story to the big screen. The result was a movie about the life of Christ that is one of the most unique and “in a class by itself.”
Prior to Pasolini, movies that were made about Jesus aimed to harmonize the story as told in all four Gospels. Pasolini was the first to set out to tell the story of Jesus uniquely through one specific Gospel. In 1979, John Heyman would make the movie, Jesus, based on the story as told in the Gospel of Luke, and in 2003, Phillip Saville would make a movie entitled The Gospel of St. John. Not only does Pasolini’s movie stand out because of his emphasis on one Gospel, but he decided to film the movie in black and white, and the dialogue is in Italian with English subtitles.
Pasolini’s movie offers Christians a valuable gift: a picture of Jesus from an outsider reading the Gospel of Matthew without the baggage of personal church experience. It is ironic that earlier portrayals of Jesus in the movies were made with opulence: exotic set locations, big move stars, and major budgets. Contrarily (and certainly inspired by his Marxism), Pasolini hires local townspeople and his friends as actors. Tatum describes the film as neo-realistic in style – almost like a documentary. It reminds us of an “earthy” version of DeMille’s classic.
Pasolini was an atheist, but he claimed, “I, a non-believer, was telling the story through the eyes of a believer.” Such a claim is worth our reflection as we consider his Jesus.
Monday Reflection on The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Clip: 0:00 – 6:40
It may seem redundant at this point to watch another movie, about another birth story, about another person’s interpretation of Jesus. Before preparing this devotional guide, I was unaware of Pasolini’s movie, but it has quickly become one of my favorites. I think this opening scene helps set the tone for just how different this movie is from all other movies about Jesus. To get back to the original point of our Lenten journey, as we try to see Jesus more clearly, these portrayals that are most different from what we’ve grown used to seeing are especially important. I love this earthy, shaky, and raw opening scene. It helps humanize both Mary and Joseph. This was the scene that Jesus was born into, not the jazzed-up Christmas manger scenes we are used to seeing. The angels drop their birth announcement bomb on a completely unexpected woman and her betrothed.
This all helps set the tone for the rest of the movie and hopefully draws you in. For today’s devotional exercise, however, as we’ve laid out ways this movie (along with others we’ve watched) challenges the way we see and understand Jesus, let’s consider how we view ourselves. The Bible begins with the audacious claim that humans are created in God’s image. What sets us apart from the rest of the created order is that we are made in the image of God. Spend a few minutes today pondering what exactly that means.
One of the amazing things we often take for granted is the constant access we have to our phones which, in turn, give us constant access to a camera. There is increasing interest in the way that taking pictures can function as a spiritual discipline. Our images are a snapshot of a moment in time and force us to stop and reflect on that moment. A side effect of our phone/camera combination has been the evolution of the selfie. Today, I encourage you to take a selfie of yourself and reflect on what you see. Don’t be embarrassed, you can delete it when you’re done, but snap a picture of yourself and look at it. When I take a picture of myself, I almost always notice how fat my face looks or how far my chin sticks out, or some other blemish that bothers me. Isn’t that what usually drives us to take more and more selfies trying to get just the right one? “My eyes were closed!” “I look ugly in that one!” “That’s my bad side!”
a good look at the first picture you take and do your best to keep your
critiques at bay. Instead, say to yourself, “I have been created in the image
of God” as you stare at your picture. We all know the famed mythological story
of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection, but equally important is
the warning to underappreciate our beauty and uniqueness as people created in
the image of God. In his book entitled, Selfies, Craig Detweiler claims,
“Selfies are a search for God via God’s image: us.” As
you look at yourself, consider the relationship you have to Mary and Joseph –
two ordinary people called by God to do something extraordinary. He’s not
calling you to raise the Son of God, but he is calling you to greatness – and
you are worthy of it!
 W. Barnes Tatum, Jesus at the Movies, 3rd ed. (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 109.
 Ibid., 111.
 Ibid., 112.
 Craig Detwiler, Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age, (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2018), 17.