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It seems like every generation of moviemaking has its aesthetic excuse for saving money. For example Dogme 95, the philosophy most famously adopted by Lars Von Trier, accepts video instead of film, and prohibits any sets or props not found on location.

Back in ‘66, with the release of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, there was a resurgence of Italian Neorealism, a movement that took off in the poverty-ridden post-war Italy of the forties. True to the spirit of neorealism Pier Paolo Pasolini used little-known actors and local non-actors to populate his film.

A Homosexual, A Marxist, and an Atheist

Pier Paolo Pasolini was a homosexual, a Marxist, and an atheist (he reputedly objected to the inclusion of the word “Saint” in the English title of the film). He ran into the law once for obscenity after the publication of his first novel, then later for “vilification of the Church” after his second film

With so much counting against Pasolini, you’d never guess he made a film about the life of Jesus. Knowing that he did, you might guess that St. Matthew was a heretical, disrespectful portrait of the most influential man in history. Quite the contrary, St. Matthew is an honest, straightforward, faithful portrait of the life of Jesus.

What Pasolini accomplishes better than any other filmmaker is to portray the society in which Jesus lived. Although there are many ways to look at this film, this is the one I find most interesting. In St. Matthew, Jesus is just one citizen, and a troublemaker at that.

Simply a Man, and None Too Popular

St. Matthew does not make Jesus larger than life. This Jesus does not live behind the rose-colored glasses of history and religious perfection. Instead, St. Matthew portrays him as simply a man, and a none-too-popular one at that. Enrique Irazoqui plays Jesus as a humorless prig. Not only is he preaching, he is preachy, always telling people what to do.

Pasolini’s Jesus lives among real people, in real cities, bringing real discord into their daily lives. He causes so much trouble among his contemporaries that they want to crucify him. When Judas betrays him three times, he seems to be doing it just to get him off his back. The world rejects Jesus, happy to be rid of him.

This interpretation of Jesus as social outcast and troublemaker is just as valid as, and much more interesting than the wise, socially progressive Jesus of the late twentieth century.

Never Disrespectful

Although this angle — Jesus as parade-rainer — is interesting to contemplate, the film itself doesn’t particularly emphasize it. One almost has to know of Pasolini’s atheism to see anything unflattering in this portrayal of Jesus.

In that sense, this film is never disrespectful of Jesus the man or of Christianity. It merely amplifies what is already there in the source material. In fact, there are those among the believers who find St. Matthew to be one of the most honest, moving portraits of Christ on film.

Still, St. Matthew is not for all tastes. Those who hold a dear and idealized vision of Jesus to be comforting could very well hate this film. But Pasolini’s version offers much more insight and honesty than any other portrayal. It’s a great film that holds up well after three and a half decades.