The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Enrique Irazoqui on set in The Gospel according to St Matthew


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



9 August


SS Firmus and Rusticus

Today in the Christian calendar is the feast day of Saints Firmus and Rusticus. They were two gentlemen of Verona who were martyred by the Emperor Maximian for refusing to bow down to, or sacrifice to, pagan idols. Their refusal won them torture, beatings with clubs and finally decapitation. That’s the official story, though no one is really sure who the men were, what they did, or even where they came from. It has been suggested they were African martyrs whose relics were transported to Verona post mortem. Or that they were men from Bergamo who only died in Verona. Or that the relics from Verona in fact went to Africa, not vice versa. Scant though their biographies are, today is their day.




The Gospel according to Matthew (1964, dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini)

The Marxist, atheist and gay Pasolini’s life of Jesus Christ is probably the best filmic version there is. Possibly because Pasolini isn’t proselytising, possibly just because he was a great film-maker. The film is a work of remarkable simple power, full of misery and glory, dirt and poetry, populated with people whose faces look as if drawn directly from the pages of the Bible. They’re poor, in other words, not here the lean long thigh bones of a Charlton Heston or the paunch of a Charles Laughton, instead Pasolini’s cast are the peasants of the district of Basilicata, where he shot the film (and where Mel Gibson would shoot The Passion of the Christ 40 years later, possibly hoping for inspiration, or even intercession). And Pasolini’s Jesus is a non-acting economics student (Enrique Irazoqui). The whole thing is shot like a documentary, without a screenplay, and using the gospel of Matthew as written to block out scene after scene. So all the dialogue is from the Bible, is the word of God if you are a believer. Though God doesn’t seem to have been given a screen credit.
The Jesus of Matthew, and of Pasolini, is the righteous Jesus, the debating hot-headed rabbi who would take on anybody in an argument and win, the Jesus of the Bible, not the meek big-eyed drip so often served up in films made by Christians, ironically. But before that we’ve been given the story of Jesus’s birth – his mother’s unusual pregnancy, the flight to Egypt, the lack of room at the inn, the three wise men. Later we get his ministry, the miracles, his rise as a prominent preacher, his trial and his execution on the cross, all done matter of factly.
It’s the story of 1960s radical politics – radical chic, possibly too – pasted back onto a figure who can take any amount of interpretation. This is Jesus the leftie, the scorner of wealth, the lover of the poor, who preaches about the kingdom of heaven because the kingdom down here is only for losers.
You might expect, with all this downbeat, non-professional, script-free business, that the film is lacking in uplift, joy or transcendence. In fact it’s full of it, Pasolini’s careful use of close-up and long shot doing what Michael Bay can’t do with thousands of CGI fiddlers, Pasolini’s focus on the right face, the right expression telling us that we’re in the hands of a director who understands that humans respond to stories about humans. With Pasolini the face is the story.
Enrique Irazoqui is exhibit A here, his slight, hunched Jesus a ball of fervent intelligence, a very human redeemer. It’s a remarkable performance in a remarkable film that time is treating very kindly. Surely it’s time for that Pasolini revival.



Why Watch?


  • The best Bible film? Probably
  • Enrique Irazoqui’s Jesus
  • The music – Bach to the blues
  • The faces of the support players – see Judas Iscariot


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Gospel according to St Matthew – Watch it now at Amazon





Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

One of many torture scenes from Salo, 120 Days of Sodom


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



27 November



James Pratt and John Smith executed for sodomy, 1835

On this day in 1835, the last two men to be publicly executed for buggery in England were hanged outside Newgate Prison in London, where a fairly large crowd had gathered. James Pratt, aged 30, and John Smith, aged 40, had been discovered in flagrante in the room of another man, William Bonill, by Bonill’s landlord, who had become suspicious about the string of men who would visit him. By climbing into the loft of the next door building, the landlord had been able to catch sight of what Pratt and Smith were up to, and then confirmed his sightings by taking a peek through the keyhole of the room they were in, as did his wife. He then broke down the door to confront them. The penalty for buggery was death in those days, and had been since King Henry VIII had created An Acte for the Punysshement of the Vice of Buggerie, it is thought as a way of enabling him to confiscate large amounts of Church land under one of the act’s forfeiture clauses. This had become the Buggery Act in 1533, then the Offences Against the Person Act of 1828. Of the 17 people who were sentenced to death at the September and October sessions of the Central Criminal Court, all had their death sentences commuted, except for Pratt and Smith, who were hanged, in spite of the pleas for clemency by their wives. As a special newspaper printed and handed out just for the occasion put it, “The prisoners having been conveyed from their cells early in the morning, were at the usual hour conducted to the fatal spot, and soon after launched into eternity, amidst the yells & groans of the spectators.”




Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

From the era when “arthouse” was often a synonym for “porn”, Pasolini’s most infamous film is hardly titillating, though it is brimming with nudity, sex and sexual perversion. In fact it can be seen as the antidote to the sort of film Pasolini had been making only a couple of years earlier – The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron – in which lusty young men with untameable erections would get into saucy scrapes with buxom wenches. You don’t get that with Salo. Instead it’s a tale of tyranny and sex, and the tyranny of sex, in an Italy ruled over by the Nazis, where a lawyer, a banker, a cleric and an aristocrat are at the head of a grand odious plan to lure comely young folk to a villa where they are subject to all manner of sexual degradation. Based on De Sade, it is designed to shock – the shit-eating scene does it for most people – but the intention isn’t to offend. Pasolini had a point about the pillars of society, all in cahoots, having a broadly similar harmful effect on the mass of the people. Whether his point needs to be quite so graphically expressed is the question – the film has barely been seen since it was made. Salo is banned in most countries, and even in those countries where freedom of expression is a constitutional matter it’s very hard to get hold of a copy of Salo. Because, in short, there’s just not much appetite for it. Still, if lines of dialogue such as “There are a thousand occasions when one does not desire a woman’s anus,” have piqued your interest, this Dante-esque descent to specially reserved circles of hell by one of the brightest talents of the intensely productive Italian cinema of the era might be your bag.



Why Watch?


  • Pasolini’s last film
  • There’s real “I watched it” kudos
  • For a while DVDs of Salo became the most expensive in the world
  • Ennio Morricone’s jazz tinged soundtrack


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom – at Amazon





Arabian Nights

Pasolini's Arabian Nights




Pasolini’s beautiful, erotically charged Arabian Nights took Cannes by storm in 1974 but all these years later it’s an almost forgotten film and the director seems to have fallen even further out of favour than fellow Italians Visconti, Fellini or Antonioni. Perhaps he’s gone so far out of fashion that he’s about to come back in via the back door. The film is definitely worth a look, being the third and best in his Trilogy of Life series. More completely than Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, Arabian Nights showcases Pasolini’s eye for unconventional beauty – both male and female. To get a taste of Islamic authenticity, Pasolini shot his handful of the 1001 nights in Iran and Yemen (with other sequences in Nepal and Ethiopia)  – locations that still don’t get their shake of the stick even all these years later. The sense of place is as strong as Pasolini’s cod-medievalism is unorthodox and the influence of Arabian miniatures is everywhere. Arabian Nights, like the original book put together in the Islamic Golden Age, is a portmanteau affair and Pasolini’s selection of the many tales all run with themes of abduction and forced sexual congress. You won’t be surprised, on watching, to be told that Pasolini was very fond of young men  – the film is chock full of cock. But it’s all shot, if that’s the word, in the best possible taste.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Arabian Nights – at Amazon