Biopic of Jesus of Nazareth, the revolutionary, from nativity to resurrection.
The colorized version, dubbed in English, is 90 minutes long, 47 minutes shorter than the black-&-white original of director/writer Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic depiction of the story of Jesus’s birth, teaching, death, and resurrection. Dedicated to the memory of Pope John XXIII, the score includes music by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Webern, and the Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” sung by Odetta.
Appearing like an image of the Madonna from a painting of absolute serenity come to life, Mary (Margherita Caruso) immaculately conceives after a beautiful Angel of the Lord (Rossana Di Rocco) appears to Joseph (Marcello Morante). Three wise men from the East, quoting to King Herod I from the prophets, say they are on their way to see the child who will become king. Accompanied by a crowd of children and shepherds, they bring gifts for the babe born in Bethlehem.
The angel returns, instructing Joseph to flee with his wife and child to Egypt, thereby avoiding Herod’s order to slaughter all first-born infants. Following the death of their enemies, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus return when the angel gives them the all clear.
Years later, Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui) receives baptism from John the Baptist. God’s voice: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Satan tempts Jesus in the desert. By the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls forth to the fishermen, Simon Peter (Settimio DiPorto) and Andrew: “Come, follow me. I will make of you fishers of men.”
Next he gathers to him the sons of Zebedee, James and John. Others enlist in the dozen disciples: Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James son of Alphus, Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot (Otello Sestili). “Do not believe that I have come to bring peace here to the earth,” Jesus the revolutionary warns them: “I have come not to bring peace but a sword” to set son against father and daughter against mother.
A large portion of the film is devoted to the pronouncements, aphorisms, parables Jesus spoke to his followers. Though familiar to most Christians, some of these sayings make them uncomfortable, especially the wealthy and well-to-do. “You must serve God or riches,” he says sternly, advising a princely young man to “give away all thou hast” to be perfect, for “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven.”
He who feels secure in his life will lose it, Jesus promises before miraculously curing a leper. Turn your cheek and “love your enemies”; also, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Jesus utters the words known as the Lord’s Prayer, feeds the curious multitude come to hear him as a rabbi with five loaves and two fishes, and walks on water.
When he calls to Simon Peter to step out of the boat upon the waves, the disciple soon sinks from fear; Jesus reaches out to hold him up: “Oh man of little faith, why does thou doubt?” Later, however, Jesus rewards Simon, renaming him Peter, for recognizing the Christ, by designating him as the rock on which to build the church.
But Jesus cautions his disciples: “Do not tell any man that I am the Christ.” When someone requests proof of his divinity, Jesus replies: “It is a wicked and ungrateful generation that demands a sign …” Elsewhere Salome requests from Herod II the head of John the Baptist on a plate.
To his disciples Jesus foretells his fate in Jerusalem with a comparison to Jonas in the leviathan, for there he will be betrayed, mocked, scourged, and crucified; but on the third day he will rise again. Inside the temple he disrupts the business of merchants: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” To the faithful he assures them: “And all things, whatever you ask for in prayer, you shall receive.”
He flummoxes the chief priests, scribes, and elders who question the authority behind his teaching: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus replies: “I will also ask you one thing, which if you tell me, I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” After conferring among themselves – “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the people; for they all regard John as a prophet” – they admit that they have no answer.
Asked about paying taxes, Jesus says: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” He makes clear that the way to salvation is narrow: “Many are called but few are chosen.” This Messiah’s popularity and radical preaching, denouncing “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” and “blind leaders,” must come to an end Caiaphas decides, by putting this man to death.
Following being rebuked by the master for criticizing a woman’s anointing Jesus with oil (wasting money that could be used for the poor), Judas Iscariot goes to Caiaphas. During the last supper with his twelve disciples, Jesus shares bread as his body and wine as his blood for remission of sins; he predicts that Peter will thrice deny him. In the garden of Gethsemane, Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus to stand watch but instead fall asleep.
When the soldiers come to take away the man from Nazareth – no kiss from Judas – Jesus orders Peter to put away his sword (nor is there hacking off of an ear): “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?”
Accused of blasphemy with a penalty of death, Caiaphas sends Jesus to Pontius Pilate. Elsewhere Judas hangs himself. The crowd calls for freeing Barabbas rather than Jesus. Crowned with thorns, initially Jesus trudges with the burden of a cross, though the soldiers force another, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross to Golgotha for him.
His mother Mary (Susanna Pasolini) watches in agony as her son is crucified. As he cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?,” an earthquake shakes and shatters buildings. A few days after Jesus’s body is taken down and placed inside a cave provided by Joseph of Arimathea, his mother Mary with two other women accompanied by male disciples arrive at the tomb only to find the Angel of the Lord announcing that Christ is not here but risen and will meet with them in Galilee. The movie makes no mention of Mary Magdalene.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew is available at UW’s Coe Library and for rent at Hastings Entertainment.
Patrick is a regular contributor to Laramie Movie Scope. See many more reviews of his at: http://www.lariat.org/AtTheMovies/old/others.html