Cleopatra, doomed by its stupendous cost and the scandal surrounding its leads, had hastened the demise of the genre. In Italy pepla could always be cheaply made, but audiences were beginning to desert sword-and-sandal adventures in favour of the new kids on the block, the giallo and the spaghetti western. With the ancient epic as a whole went the colossal Bible adaptations of the fifties and early sixties, like The Ten Commandments (1956) and King of Kings (1961).
Curiously, though, the dying years of the biblical epic were in fact well suited to serious public explorations of religion. The papacy of John XXIII, culminating in the Second Vatican Council, marked an opening of the Catholic Church towards the world, a qualified departure from its previous defensive stance vis-à-vis modernity and possibly an ecclesiological revolution. As part of that, the Church became more willing to engage art produced by non-Catholics.
The non-Catholic that interests us here is Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian novelist, director, poet, intellectual and pretty much every other cultural profession under the sun. An open atheist and communist, Pasolini was also followed by (well-founded) rumours of homosexuality in the tabloid press. He was, in short, precisely the sort of person the Syllabus of Errors of a more combative papacy was directed against. And yet Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) - dedicated to the memory of John XXIII - is a stunning success, a far more interesting religious work than the often musty epics Hollywood had churned out. Armed with an unimpressive budget, Pasolini succeeds in making the most ubiquitous story in Western culture strange again.
He does this, first, by adapting only the Gospel of Matthew, shunning the usual approach of harmonising the gospels or filling in gaps in one with bits from the other. That approach often leads to ridiculousness in adaptation (witness talkative crucified Jesus in The Passion of the Christ) as well as cognitive dissonance, since we're taught not to realise that Matthew and Luke tell different and incompatible nativity stories. By sticking solely to Matthew, the film does not feature the birth of John the Baptist, the census and journey to Bethlehem (like Matthew's gospel, Pasolini implies Joseph and Mary are from Bethlehem), the birth of Jesus in a stable, the shepherds - and that's the nativity alone; later, we're not given the 'I am' statements, the woman caught in adultery, the wedding at Cana, Jesus and Zacchaeus, the parable of the Good Samaritan, doubting Thomas, and so on. By missing all these familiar elements, the narrative feels startling and strange; we see its shape, but it is not the shape of the gospel we think we know.
Instead, Pasolini - faithful to Matthew, I think - presents the story mostly as an escalating conflict between Jesus and the Jewish civil and religious authorities. He emphasises Herod's massacre of the innocent at Bethlehem, repeatedly stressing the violence of the authorities. We see Jesus react tearfully to the murder of John the Baptist, but determined to continue his mission. Under pressure in Jerusalem, he retreats into the company of the Twelve, with whom he eats a final supper at a safe house before being betrayed, arrested and executed, and rising again on Sunday.
At the heart of Pasolini's gospel story is Jesus (and, before him, John the Baptist) challenging the institutions and representatives of Israel to accept him as Messiah. Rejected, he begins forming an alternative Israel consisting of the poor, the disreputable and the sick - an upside-down kingdom that pointedly confronts the authorities. The victory of established Israel - capturing, convicting and executing Jesus - proves an illusion, as he rises and commissions his followers to extend his kingdom to the whole earth. Because the old Israel rejected Jesus, it has now been rejected by God.
That storyline, of course, is why Matthew's gospel is often accused of antisemitism - a charge that seems basically accurate, although anti-Jewish rhetoric from a precarious first-century Messianic sect is undoubtedly different from the modern-day scourge. Pasolini avoids that problem by de-contextualising Matthew's Jesus-against-the-Jews story through the deliberate use of anachronism. Herod's soldiers are dressed like medieval warriors and Spanish conquistadors, and the film uses the Romanesque and Gothic churches of Basilicata and Apulia for sets. The soundtrack features well-known pieces of religious music from Händel to Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night". By mixing symbols from two thousand years of Christian history, Pasolini's film is at once about first-century Palestine and the hope of a whole crushed humanity in Jesus. First-century events are thus imbued with an eschatological dimension.
At the same time, Pasolini undercuts folk orthodoxy at several points. Salome, whose dance before Herod II leads to the execution of John the Baptist, is portrayed as a nervous teenage girl under the thrall of her mother, not the lascivious temptress of tradition. Jesus, meanwhile, is not the serenely smiling figure of religious art; Spanish student Enrique Irazoqui portrays him as angry, driven, and ultimately inscrutable. The other actors, local amateurs all, predictably give flat, affectless performances - which, given Pasolini's copious use of the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, is as it should be.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew is not the plain Marxist allegory Pasolini was expected to produce. Pasolini's Jesus is, instead, the Christ of liberation theology: in his ministry God's kingdom - inaugurated by his death at empire's hands - and the embrace of the oppressed are inextricably bound up. The audience, though, is not put in a comfortable position of solidarity. Pasolini films the trial of Jesus over the shoulders of the jeering crowd, implicating the viewer in the rejection of Jesus. His Jesus is not reducible to a single lesson or pat truth. The suffering of mankind bound up in him, he remains mysterious - but endlessly fascinating.