Some of the most intriguing artistic tributes to faith and religion come from nonbelievers. A Man For All Seasons, the great drama of the life and martyrdom of St. Thomas More, was written for the stage and screen by the non-Christian Robert Bolt. The story of The Song of Bernadette, the Marian visionary of Lourdes, was first written as a historical novel by a Jewish author, Franz Werfel. And Mark Twain’s favorite work among all his books was his Joan of Arc.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was an atheist, indeed a Marxist, and his The Gospel According to Matthew is routinely interpreted as a proto-Marxist allegory. Yet Pasolini was perhaps first of all a poet, and the concepts of the sacred and the divine, far from repelling him as so much religious superstition, held for him a powerful appeal. In 1962 he came to Assisi in response to Pope John XXIII’s call for dialogue with non-Christian artists. While there, he read through a book of the Gospels “from beginning to end, like a novel,” later proclaiming the story of Jesus “the most exalting thing one can read.”
As a result of this experience, Pasolini became consumed with the notion of filming the life of Christ straight from one of the Gospels, shooting without a screenplay and taking no editorial license with the text. After completing The Gospel According to Matthew, he dedicated it “to the dear happy familiar memory of John XXIII.”
Pasolini edits, but doesn’t rewrite; he omits some scenes and rearranges others, but on a scene-by-scene basis he follows Matthew’s dialogue almost verbatim, neither changing nor adding. (A few very minor departures are allowed, such as putting Matthew’s list of the names of the twelve disciples onto Jesus’ lips.)
What most differentiates Pasolini’s method from that of subsequent word-for-word productions such as The Gospel of John is Pasolini’s reliance on the image as the cinematic equivalent of the sacred writer’s narration. There is no voiceover narrative in The Gospel According to Matthew; whatever Matthew tells us himself, as opposed to reporting other people saying, must either be understood from the images or else be lost.
The result of this rigor is a film that is at once both more cinematic and less literary than a film like The Gospel of John, yet also less intrusive and more respectful of the text than adapted works that venture to put the filmmakers’ own words in the biblical figures’ mouths, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” or even The Miracle Maker.