“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28
Transforming Christian stories into something contemporary is a commonly fraught exercise. There are so many stories in the Bible that are universal in their implications and have become such immensely common shorthand in our culture, like the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, or many of the classic old testament stories like Noah’s Ark. As such, many artists have tried to take these and use them to advance ends outside of the goals of the Gospel. A good example of this was Darren Aronofy’s 2014 film Noah, which crossed this line for many, telling a story about environmentalism that questioned whether or not God can forgive human beings for defiling the Earth.
It’s not a story interested in the religious implications of God’s wrath so much as it is interested in castigating the human race for pollution. There’s a tight rope to walk in any adaptation between honoring the story and deciding what needs to go on screen. You can make a great piece of art through radical reinterpretation (The Shining, The Last Temptation of Christ), but you have to be prepared to endure the criticism that comes with that decision.
So what do we make of a film like The Gospel According to St. Matthew? The famous Italian adaptation of the Gospels is one of the most perplexing Biblical epics of all time. On one hand, it’s a deeply loyal and emotionally powerful exploration of Christ’s ministry. On the other than, it was also made by a gay, Marxist, atheist who actively rejected Christianity in all other aspects of his life. That’s a strange combination. As such, many have pointed out its relative differences in regards to how the film portrays Christ as opposed to other biblical adaptions.
The dissonance comes more into focus if you’re familiar with the director’s work. Pier Paolo Pasolini was a famous purveyor of “extreme cinema.” He was a radical non-conformist, a political revolutionary, and a provocateur whose films often depicted the taboo and grotesque. His films like The Decameron and Salo: 120 Days of Sodom depict some of the most infamously brutal, sexual, and deprived works to come out of European cinema. As someone who’s life was dedicated to the dismantling of the world as we know it, what did he see in the central figure of a religion he actively fought against?
Evidently more than one might think. The year before he made the film in 1963, he released his short film La ricotta. The film was blasphemous enough to earn him a brief stint in Italian jail. As the story goes, while waiting in Assisi for a conference of non-religious artists with the Pope, Pasolini found himself confined to a hotel room when the Pope’s traffic left him temporarily stranded there. Without anything to do, he pored over a copy of the Bible in his room and found himself completely inspired to depict the life of Christ in his next film.
Following the film’s release, he was asked directly why he made the film and responded by saying, “if you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” He seems to be comfortable with the contradiction of an atheist inspired by Christ. If anything, he’s inspired by what Christ represented through his ideology. Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew is recontextualized somewhat from a prophet to a radical. He’s a disruptor of the status quo.
To quote CinemaSangha: “Rather than a deconstruction, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew is a reconstruction of Christ, recapturing from the grips of the greedy and the powerful the peasant laborer who would become a prophet and Messiah.”
Much of this is done through aesthetic choices and production design. The film is radically loyal to the text of the Bible. All of the film’s dialog comes directly from the Gospel of Matthew, the book Pasolini most preferred of the four gospels because he found “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental.” Any events in the story without dialog that need to be depicted, like the birth of Christ, are done so entirely visually with a background of gorgeous Gospel and Christian music filling the space.
The only places the film notably diverts from the biblical text is in its depiction of miracles. The film downplays the miracles of Christ to put a greater emphasis on his words. This might be somewhat problematic to some Christians, but at the same time, it’s not a dishonest depiction. The only political choices here come in what he’s leaving out. Pasolini is disinterested in the metaphysical implications of Christ in so far as his radicalism doesn’t serve some greater function.
Take the scene where the Pharisees castigate Christ for healing a crippled man on the sabbath. The focus of the scene is almost entirely on Christ calling out the hypocrisy more so than the miracle. The miracle happens in a wide shot, while Christ’s intensity focuses on the Pharisee’s hypocrisy. The latter gets all of the intensity and focus on the scene while the former is reduced in scope. Christ’s miracles in this version almost come across as vindications of Christ’s message more than divine intervention. Even his resurrection feels more vindictive than miraculous.
Pasolini’s framing, use of the camera, and costume design does most of the legwork to really reframe the story in his image. The film uses small details in the scene to emphasize the class differences between the people Christ preaches to and the religious leaders. The latter are dressed in enormous, garish clothes while the people Christ ministers to are downtrodden, wearing scraps of clothing, yet kind people who provide for Christ and the disciples as necessary. Frequently, we see the Pharisees elevated above Christ in stature while he bravely looks up to them and dresses them down. In one shot, Christ even castigates an entire city skyline in the distance for its hypocrisy.
One might consider this too self-serving on Pasolini’s part, but nothing in this depiction isn’t in the text. Christ really did focus his ministry on serving the poor and downtrodden while castigating the rich and hypocritical. Unlike something like Noah, Pasolini is highlighting details in the text to emphasize an existing theme rather than twisting them for a personal agenda.
The only real issue with Pasolini’s interest in Christ’s radicalism is it’s a somewhat narrow and shallow depiction of the Gospels. Christ was a radical and a provocateur, but wasn’t there to vindicate the poor and downtrodden as blameless.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:23
In a strange way, Pasolini didn’t take Christ’s radicalism far enough.
Here where I live in the United States, Christ’s radicalism in the Bible is an all too infrequently discussed aspect of his ministry. Given how in my country, Christianity is largely a byproduct of conservative culture, maybe there’s a reason for that. Conservatives aren’t radical people. They’re set in their ways; seeking order and stability often at the expense of Christ’s message. At the same time, Christ’s radicalism is all too frequently disabused as a means for political ends by people across the spectrum. Many progressive voices compare Christ’s ministry to their own political beliefs, claiming he’s a socialist with a radical disdain for the rich. Like Pasolini, Christ becomes an avatar for radical change and a rage against the status quo.
In any case, Christ’s meekness and radicalism are treated like self-serving attacks in a culture war. Both views are self-serving. We just use Christ’s words to vindicate our own beliefs. In the United States at least, there’s very little honest discussion of what Christ’s radicalism SHOULD mean for our lives.
Radicalism is a difficult concept to identify and use in a moral way. Some forms of radicalism may be good, but it’s not good in and of itself. Stalinist views and white supremacy are both radical, and both are uniquely toxic and destructive to human freedom and flourishing. If anything, they’re merely self-serving and outward focused. They blame nebulous concepts in the world like capitalism, racial ethnicity, or the ever present spectre of “The Jews” who seem to be the punching bags of radicals across the political spectrum for whatever reason. They place the blame for our situations outside of the purview of our choices.
If we ought to be radicals, we must do so with an understanding of our human flaws. Any radicalism that doesn’t call us to radical humility and self-reflection is destructive at its face. Radicalism by its nature is something that will destroy if you don’t use that power carefully. Christ calls us to be radicals in this world because the world is fallen and bent. To do that, we must draw upon the Bible and dedicate ourselves to living Christ’s words and ministry in our daily lives. That’s a difficult task, but it’s the root of the Gospels. Christ challenged people to be the best people they could be. He frequently asked men to give up their entire lives, families, and wealth to join him and become his disciples. Most men turned away from the challenge at its face.
“Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” When the young man heard this, he went away in sorrow, because he had great wealth.” – Matthew 19:21-22
For mature Christians even, that’s a price most people aren’t prepared to pay. We all have homes, families, and responsibilities we have to fulfill, and the idea of leaving it all for Christ is more than most people could ever do. Yet Christ gives all men forgiveness who seek it, seemingly even the rich men who cannot bring themselves to serve him fully.
“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:25-26
If Christ is someone we ought to look up to, he isn’t someone we should look to to justify anything about ourselves. We will always be inadequate to inherit the kingdom of heaven, but Christ forgives all who ask for his forgiveness. As difficult as it may be, we must be willing to give ourselves totally to him. We must pray in earnest for God to reveal the nature of our personal sacrifices and ministry in order to serve him.
“You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” – Matthew 10:22
Christ’s radical message upsets the world. Humans don’t like to be told we’re wrong, and Christ was prepared to go straight to the top to criticize the Holy and righteous of their misdeeds. For this, he made a lot of enemies.
Christ was hated because he looked at the best this world could offer and scolded them for their hypocrisies. Lest we forget, the Pharisees were respected religious men. If Christ came down today, the modern equivalent would be him standing up to The Pope or Joel Olsteen and demanding they explain themselves. It would be shocking. We as Christians will not be loved by the world, or even other Christians, for doing this.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – Matthew 10:34
Christ was a disrupter and he came to bear the sword against humanity’s sin. The world Christ wants to bring into existence will not be like this world. It will not be fallen and bent. It will be a paradise free of man’s fallen nature.
It’s only a wonder then why Pasolini would see something inspiring in Christ. Christ’s story is so radical, even people who cannot bring themselves to believe it are inspired by it. There is a reason so many non-believers hold Christ up as a “great moral teacher” while castigating the religion that proclaims him. Jesus is blameless in the face of the world. Despite his numerous misgivings with Christianity, Passolini adapted the Gospel of Matthew earnestly. He refused to write his own words into the mouth of Christ because “images could never reach the poetic heights of the text.”
Pasolini took a lot of criticism in his circles for making a Bible epic in spite of how he reframed the story of Jesus. Christianity to Marxists is the opioid of the masses and dulls their revolutionary spirit. Even diverting slightly from the spirit was enough to earn him scrutiny. Maybe this shows the fruits of a positive radicalism. Pasolini took the blame and was proud of his accomplishment. Our radicalism should be inwardly focused and enhance our ability to look charitably towards others and their sins. For Passolini, he was inspired by Christ, but didn’t take it far enough. He couldn’t bring himself to believe and change himself. He continued with his unrepentant blasphemy and followed a radical path until he was brutally murdered in 1975. He clearly saw Christ as a means of propagating his own radical ideology. Yet he strangely still honored the image of Christ in a way few directors ever have. It speaks wonders, though, that merely doing that much put him at odds with fellow communists.
For my own faith, my radicalism has meant learning to understand myself more radically and face my faults head on. My faith hasn’t made me a better man so much as it’s made me realize my infinite capacity for casual evil and disregard for goodness. It is only through such self-reflection, penance, and conviction that we may know salvation. When we do so, we become creatures born of this world who are not of it. That’s a difficult path for any person, yet it’s one I walk proudly and openly. We will become enemies of this world, but gain the only ally we need.
“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” – Romans 8:31
To those who are suffering this Holy Week, seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. Our world has become chaotic in recent months as the burden of a modern plague grinds the world to a halt. Most of us aren’t even going to be able to attend our Easter services and masses. He is with us, even in this darkness.
Stay safe and God Bless you all!