What better text to make a social point in any context, what better christ figure than Christ himself? Let's make this again, today dear non-professionals, hopers and paupers, let's name our socially unjust stage, let's shoot this in Burma, let's shoot this in Singapore, let's pick our battle and play out our story, let us with irreligious urgency plumb the bottomless and potent relevance of the Christ story. I was very taken with this piece, in every way.
Pasolini confidently wields the text wholesale, almost unabridged, the result is over-long, intentionally so perhaps, adding attrition to his battle with Catholicism. Scene after scene of southern Italian poverty make the text more real than history and more effective than abstracted polemic, in his relentless documentary portrayal of timeless truth played out in the now.
I posed, if perhaps there were any other comparable text against which you could pin down authorities and mock them by so close a rendering of their scriptures? Is there an environmentalist's holy book by whose consensus of approval one could leverage some critique against its pharisees, one against whose ideals film could paint the hypocrisy? Jesus and Pasolini were able to have more varied fun with their cause because the religious leaders they targeted and the population they were defending were both so deeply familiar with a single text.
So the socially critical dimension of the film is a rich vein to mine and model after. He is given license to preach so, for my viewing at least, chiefly by the exquisite photography he tells it through. Every single frame is a photograph, it is bold and deeply human portraiture throughout, it is a beautifully compassionate unhurried photography with an innate feel for man in the landscape, with a delight in texture as the loosely-woven fabric of veils in the wind and the startling eyes of the angel and the fishing nets and desert and crumbling stone walls captured in vivid contrast. I love it.
If it is too far to argue from the film that Jesus was a Marxist, perhaps we can say that he was at least a Neorealist of this Italian tradition. That when Jesus came to cast for his masterpiece, he selected non-professionals, locals and the poor. Go, do likewise Christian, in your film and art and architecture.
Following this midnight viewing we unpacked a little the potential for film to effect change in this our 'Che t-shirt' generation. Pasolini's Gospel of Matthew was never 'popular' cinema, despite beautifully and urgently addressing popular themes. Could it be, should it be? Can we observe any fruit from the tired mode of Gore's and Moore's awareness raising? I would argue that raising awareness is not enough and has never been enough. On social issues and injustice, film ought to equip the willing, confront the stubborn and unsettle the comfortable. Film should (and is uniquely positioned to be able to) shatter the stories we live within, to remake our tired and selfish mythologies, and go on to re-write the narratives which make up the substance of those pre-suppositions out of which our social problems arise. And be popular at the same time.
Some reviews take exception to the use of inappropriate music in this. Maybe. It is a beautiful soundtrack though, and Missa Luba and Motherless Child, I wouldn't have changed anything. I thought it odd to rush the sermon on the mount, I thought it odd to make the crucifixion so sanitised. The woes are suitably angry at hypocrisy and it is refreshing to see a shouting Jesus. Full screen faces, equally, refreshingly confrontational, unabashedly human. A great film.
“I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” - Pasolini