A comparative and contrasting study of the lives of Jesus and St. Francis treated in two films as history and art, by Dr. Ampat Koshy.
Pasolini is a director all movie buffs know. I watched his Salò or 120 days of Sodom. I was highly impressed and rather scared by his mastery, and courage to tackle such an ugly book. It was not a good introduction to his work, as it made me not want to watch any more of his films.
Now I have watched The Gospel According to St. Matthew. This is in black and white, while the other one was in color, and sticks to the story of Jesus almost as closely as the Gospel under consideration. But there are many remarkable things about it.
One is the framing of the shots, the portraiture, and the casting. The shots are framed in the neo-realist mode of film making, the faces framed in sharp relief in settings that make them stand out and speak volumes, as in paintings. The casting was done by Pasolini himself and he took everyone he wanted with no prior training in acting skills. By portraiture I mean the way the characters are drawn or delineated in the movie, with each one whether given just a touch or studied in detail having something that is again etched or sharp about it which is unusual.
The second is the revelation of the director, in how he sees Jesus, John the Baptist, Joseph, the beautiful (when young) virgin Mary, the disciples, the angel, the Pharisees, Herod, etc. His Jesus is no long-haired hippy but serious, stern, sad, hardly lovable, almost alien. Though he laughs with the children he is an angry young man, angry against religious hypocrisy, empire and cant. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulder, and his destiny or path through the thorns to the crown in mind, and is often, therefore, grim to the point of being forbidding.
In the amazing poetry of Pasolini’s shots, editing, and scenes where Jerusalem blends with Italy in the faces of the characters, Jesus comes across as alone, misunderstood and all too human but also divine. His divinity is not in the miracles being shown, except when he dies with a loud cry when the sun grows dark and the buildings crumble under a mighty earthquake, but in his prophecies about individuals, groups, the race itself and the place. In the end, the director takes care to show not only the crucifixion but the reactions of Peter, Judas, John, and Mary (acted, when old, by his mother) to it, and it does a lot to deepen the movie. Giorgio Agamben, the philosopher, acts in the movie, a piece of interesting trivia.
The beautiful angel is another noteworthy supernatural presence and the ‘murder of the innocents’ by Herod’s soldiers a memorable sequence, done in a restrained fashion, as is the death of Herod. By showing it immediately after the death of the children and babes he killed, through editing, Pasolini gives us poetic justice here, that tyrants die a painful death due to their crimes, and not only brings in a note against fascism but also by dissolving the time frame shows the causality of how an evil cause leads to a gruesome effect on its doer.
Throughout Pasolini takes the script directly from the gospel, adding to the effect. His choosing of cutting diatribes for his Jesus to speak helps, especially, as opposed to the Sermon on the Mount scene, as from it it can be seen that as an auteur Pasolini identifies most with Christ in his anger. It is an indirect comment on the very church that hired him to do the movie.
The whole film looks, perhaps, a bit stripped, bare and not in any way an attempt to impress but that rawness and outdatedness, with no frills and fancies, is its weakness and strength. I should have started watching Pasolini with this movie, in its ability to not compromise, with the story being shown as it is without omitting the resurrection, surprising for a Marxist, and its minimal starkness in its overall script and haunting scenery. Jesus in the temple, and his stirring oratory that is like a whip, makes us feel touched to the core if we are willing to be so touched.
I have seen better films, but this one is special. This is poetry in black and white, and nothing but a powerful statement on a serious life and theme, the beginning of a new world.
Pasolini had worked with Fellini in movies like “La Strada” but is great in his own right. When this movie came out commissioned by the Pope in 1964, the right, the Catholics and the left in Italy were all up in arms against it. But Pasolini was unfazed as he had agreed to do it after reading the gospels straight through, in Assisi of all places, and knew already the setting he wanted ( in Spain) as well as what he wanted to convey through the film. When Sartre met him the philosopher told him that the Marxists had probably not yet understood or appropriated Jesus properly, that it was an encounter that was yet to happen. Pasolini seems to have agreed on the evidence of the film. He himself wanted the film to critique the Marxists too for having become too dogmatic and surprised everyone by the ability to like a Pope as well as treat the subject reverentially.
He says: “I want to consecrate things again because that is possible, I want to re-mythologize them. I did not want to reconstruct the life of Christ as it really was, I wanted to make the history of Christ two thousands years of Christian version on, since it is the two thousands years of Christian history that have mythologized this biography, one that as such would have been virtually insignificant otherwise. My film is the life of Christ after two thousand years of stories on the life of Christ. That is what I had in mind.”
Someone asked Pasolini, you are an atheist and an unbeliever, how come you are making such a movie, on the Christ? He replied something to the effect that, if you know I am an atheist and an unbeliever you know more about me than I know about myself. He knew in himself the potential for faith and knew that there were a lot of things not treated of in Marxism that were still there in the purview of art and religion like life’s tragedies, loves, and upheavals which made it the ordinary people’s domain more than politics is.
The film was dedicated to John XXIII. The announcement at the opening credits reads that it is “dedicato alla cara, lieta, familiare memoria di Giovanni XXIII” (“dedicated to the dear, joyous, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII”).”
The music is from Bach, Odetta, Blind Willie Johnson, Congolese, and Jewish, and he referenced at least 2000 Christian art-works in the film so that it looks like a historical collage at times mixing different time periods and styles and it is the same with his camera work which varies from Classical to Godard.
The second movie I want to consider in tandem with Pasolini’s is the Michael Curtiz-directed Francis of Assisi, the one based on the novel by Louis de Wohl. Again powerful, though not as much, and this one I watched before I did Pasolini. I have the advantage of knowing both the stories inside out.
The characters of St. Francis, St. Clare, Paolo the knight errant and lover, Juniper the disciple, the Pope, Elias, and Francis’s parents all remain with us as does that of the Saracen Lord and the Cardinal. The movie is worth watching just for the encounter between Francis and the Saracen and the insight into the Crusades which shows why the Christian faith died. Francis says of the Crusades “if this is victory, defeat is better.” He becomes sick of the Crusades with its constant bloodshed on both sides, with no side better or worse than the other, and finds a friend only in the Saracen king who wants peace as much as himself, though a believer in Allah. They become friends and, as a result, Francis gets the chance to visit Jerusalem in the movie. At the end of the day, the second movie haunts us with the prayer of Francis, his famous hymn to brother Sun being referenced, his amazing resemblance to Jesus in his love for the simple life, his actions, and courage to love lepers but he also extends Jesus’ vision, as it should be, by loving the universe, earth, nature, animals, birds, children and showing the same fierce lack of compromise.
But as for film making, the poetry of a Pasolini is not there at all in the Michael Curtiz directed work. I do appreciate the Curtiz one too in its restraint. The easiest mistake to make while dealing with such a subject as the life of a saint or a human being considered divine is to slip over into melodrama or be too sober and slip into understatement and both films avoid this and strike a good balance, the former more so than the latter, which made them both movies I loved watching. There was the added advantage of the fact that the conflicts presented in these movies are once removed to us by age or history and so can be grasped better without us getting emotionally too much involved in them, though their parallels to present-day conundrums are made clear to us. The Pasolini movie seems to contain and lead to the unfolding of the second one naturally, oddly enough, for me, in the striking similarity between the two characters, the latter literally bearing the image of the first by the end of the movie, stigmata included.
One may wonder why I chose to review such movies in 2020, but the truth is we live in troubled times, and those times were in their own way troubled, and we search in the past for answers that may help us in the present. It is clear that these movies are still worth watching precisely as they wrestle with the eternal questions: “Where is the life that we have lost in living?” and “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” raised by T.S Eliot.
Both movies show the fact that the way to God is only through the vale of defeat and suffering and the one to resurrection through death. No tricks and short cuts. Rugged like the cross. Rough. No bea(u)tification or glamorization. Not traditional aesthetics, at any rate, in Pasolini’s case. Only the defense of film as poetry adorns it justly in dealing with such a famous subject that by virtue of already being done to death would otherwise have been difficult to handle.
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