One of the complaints of Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah that I saw bandied about the internets was that he is an atheist. How could an atheist make a religious movie? Or how dare he use one of our stories to make his Hollywood movie…
This argument I countered as often as I could without becoming obnoxious about it by pointing people to one of my favorite Jesus movies – one of the greatest Jesus movies ever made: The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) written (though he stuck pretty much directly to the gospel of Matthew) and directed by avowed Atheist, Marxist, and Homosexual, Pier Paolo Pasolini. My praise of this movie cannot be overstated. I don’t care if he was an atheist – this is one of the greatest depictions of the gospel story ever made.
And maybe it’s partly because he was an atheist that the film is so good.
Pasolini confined himself to the gospel of Matthew – the dialogue of the film is strictly the gospel of Matthew. No material has been added from the other three gospels. Neither was material created to bridge scenes. Pasolini did edit a few scenes out – notably lacking is the Transfiguration - and rearranged the order of a few of the stories… But this Jesus story is not an amalgamation of the four gospels. It is just Matthew.
And there is no syrupy sentimentalism here either. The music is minimal but eclectic – drawing from “high art” classical (Bach and Prokofiev) to “low art” Spirituals (Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child) and Blues and what sounds like Latin and African folk music. The costuming is eclectic as well – looking like a cross between first century Middle East and a Renaissance painting by Piero della Francesca. There are long scenes with no spoken dialogue, where the wind is the only voice. Though filmed in Italy it conveys a sense of the rugged Israel landscape (and, in fact, was filmed in the same area that Mel Gibson would later film his The Passion of the Christ). There are no big budget special effects miracles. The miracles happen, but they are quiet and unobtrusive. When the angels appear to deliver their news, or when Satan appears to tempt Jesus, it is without fanfare or the lights and glories of heaven. It is simple. It is small.
Pasolini filmed the movie in an Italian Neorealism style – using many untrained and unprofessional actors. He used real peasants and shopkeepers with their bad teeth and wrinkled faces, and bald heads. His Jesus was untrained and unknown 19 year old Enrique Irazoqui – and with that unibrow he will never be confused with Son of God “sexy Jesus.” The actors (such as they were) stumble occasionally over their lines – but the people are infused with such nobility that it is hard to sneer at them or to see this as a flaw in the movie. Their humble stature elevates the film.
Pasolini’s Jesus is both affable without becoming the “Buddy Christ” of Dogma (1999) and authoritative without becoming the weird unblinking Jesus of Nazareth (1977). He exhibits a fierce compassion – loving and tender towards the children, the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast – while stridently, passionately, ardently speaking against those in power, both religious and political.
The film cuts away from the crucifixion to a black screen (perhaps for the darkness that covered the land) and presents a challenge to the audience, jumping back to the words of Jesus in chapter 13 of Matthew’s gospel (which is , in turn, jumping back to the prophet Isaiah…)
“By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
For this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.”
If you have never seen this movie, take the time to do so.