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retrospective

Samuel HarwoodI12.22.2022
The Gospel According to St. Matthew: Mamma Tried
In this biblical drama, Pier Paolo Pasolini recasts Jesus as a kind of maternal figure, connecting the protection he offered his adherents to one a mother offers her child.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) opens with a striking close up of Mother Mary’s face — her eyes absorbing, her gaze unwavering. It contrasts with a close-up of Joseph, who looks shaken and befuddled. The next cut, a wide shot revealing Mary’s pregnant body, explains why. Joseph wanders away as Mary watches him, her eyes lowering down in disappointment. In their village, Joseph stops before a group of children playing. He leans against a rock and falls asleep. He wakes with a start to find in the children’s place an Angel in the form of a teenage girl wearing a white tunic. She tells him that the Holy Spirit has generated what lives in Mary and she will give birth to a son who will save his people from their sins. A joyous rendition of “Gloria,” performed by the Congolese group Les Troubadours de roi Baudouin, fills the air as Joseph returns to Mary. She looks at him, her gaze unchanged. He smiles at her. She smiles peacefully back. 

Much of the film is told in this way, the dialogue taken directly from the text of the Gospel, but the story moved forward through the expressive power of silent faces. Mary’s face in the film’s opening image (provided by the 15-year-old non-actress Margherita Caruso) needs only to vary slightly from its steadfast visage — the lowering of the eyes, the peaceful smile — to move the story along with clarity and weight. Pasolini’s cast is made up almost entirely of non-actors, whom he seems to have chosen precisely for the emotional impact of their faces, the way they click with the camera. Indeed, Enrique Irazoqui was an economics student when Pasolini cast him as the adult Jesus. He reached out to the director hoping to discuss his work. Before their meeting began, Pasolini asked if he’d be willing to act in one of his movies. 

When Irazoqui’s face first appears, about 25 minutes in, one understands why. Like Mary, we meet Jesus in a close-up. He has Mary’s eyes, her same unwavering look. It is as though her face has been transposed onto his. We instinctively recognize him as part of her same continuum. The mother-son connection between Jesus and Mary, captured visually in their reflected visages, makes up the emotional bedrock of the film.  

Much of the writing on this film has focused on the political perspective and contemporary sensibility Pasolini brought to the Gospel, with its modern music, Marxist sympathies, and realist camera techniques. As Roger Ebert wrote, the movie “tells the life of Christ as if a documentarian on a low budget had been following him from birth.” While this is true, I feel that the emotional structure of the film centers neither on Pasolini’s political convictions nor on his decision to bring modern techniques to an ancient story. Rather, it rests on his connection to the love and pain between mother and son, which he expresses through the relationship between Jesus and Mary. 

This is not an explicit theme in the Gospel, but rather one that Pasolini subtly draws out through his framing of its stories. The earliest example comes when the wise men, sent by Herod, come to see the baby Jesus. Mary regards them with apprehension. They kneel before her, humbly asking permission, before she finally hands them her child. In quick cuts, bemused children smile as they watch the wise men kiss the baby’s feet and hold him, as if mischievously proud that one of their own could inspire such deference from the state elders. Throughout the scene, we hear Odetta achingly sing the lines, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / A long way from home, connecting the longing for salvation to an abandoned child’s longing for their mother. (The song returns when we meet John the Baptist, lost souls approaching him in repentance). Joseph stands beside Mary during the wise men’s inspection, his look now more defensive than befuddled, but he ultimately functions as a witness. It is Mary’s decision alone to allow the visitors their glimpse into her son’s power. 

Indeed, Pasolini largely renders Joseph gentle and passive where the text of the Gospel presents him as forceful and active. At the end of their exile in Egypt, the Angel reappears to tell Joseph that his family is safe from those who wished their child dead, imploring him to take them to Israel. The text of the Gospel has Joseph leading the family heroically away. “And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” In Pasolini’s telling, a relieved Joseph looks towards his child and bends over to hug him, Mary watching them with big, contented eyes. Another filmmaker might have had Joseph gather his family cowboy-like and lead them into the sunset towards the promised land. But Pasolini isn’t interested in that. He gives Mary such an omnipotent presence, an aura of inevitability as she moves along her path,  that it seems as if Joseph is just along for the ride. When Joseph holds their son, Mary’s contented eyes speak relief not only at their safety, but at Joseph finally embracing the child he once feared — he finally got on with the program. Unlike Joseph, Mary’s connection to her son is from the start fixed and inextricable. We understand this immediately and intuitively from the steadiness of her visage.

Pasolini films Irazoqui’s Jesus in much the same way that he films Caruso’s Mary, framing his images around the quiet determination of their faces. Both only need to move the slightest bit — be it a smile or a raised eyebrow — to shift the emotional dynamic of their scenes. (The face of Judas Iscariot, with his mouth always gaping, confused, creates a clear contrast with Jesus’ silent clarity). To adapt the middle section on the sermons, Pasolini holds Irazoqui in a shaky handheld close-up for a full five minutes, the lighting and background alternating between dissolves, but the actor’s expression steady beneath the passion of his words. The sequence presents Jesus as a source of consistency in the midst of chaos, much like the young Mary who holds steady to her son in the midst of Joseph’s fear and uncertainty. In this way, when we meet Jesus as an adult, we feel as though we’ve already met him. He carries his spiritual connection to his mother into adulthood. 

The children in the film seem to understand this. Just as they are drawn to Mary and the baby Jesus during the wise men’s visit, they are drawn to the adult Jesus throughout the remainder of the film. He offers the young ones a kind of protection from the arbitrary meanness of the adult world. The camera floats around them as Jesus repudiates the authorities who command him not to give food on the Sabbath. When Jesus debates the Pharisees at the temple, a row of children sit at his feet. They turn and grin teasingly at the flustered elders after Jesus makes a clever point. And when children run to Jesus, he always welcomes them with warmth. 

In this way, when we meet Jesus as an adult, we feel as though we’ve already met him. He carries his spiritual connection to his mother into adulthood. 

They pull at his robes and hug his legs when mothers in a village ask him to bless them. An older man tells the children to leave him alone, but Jesus responds, “Leave the children be. Do not keep them from me. The kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” An intense scene in which Jesus angrily drives out the merchants from the temple, kicking over their stands, gives way to joy as children run out waving branches, shouting “Hosanna to the son of David!” Jesus watches them with a simple, sweet smile, as though grateful that they brought happiness to a venomous situation, and turned the den of thieves into a house of prayer. 

There are lines scattered throughout the Gospel that allude to Jesus’ affection for children — “…unless you become as children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.” — but Pasolini stages them as a central component of Jesus’ power and sermonizing. The adults in their lives leave the children feeling stranded and Jesus makes them feel closer to home. They gain confidence around him, enabling them to disrespect their elders and run towards him in reckless abandon, regardless of how the wards of state might view him. They see him as their natural ally. And he gives them the same unwavering protection, inviting them in with the same silent assuredness that his own mother gave him. The spiritual connection Jesus maintains with his mother, conveyed through the casting and visual framing of the two characters, attracts children towards him throughout the film. In this way, Pasolini’s subtle but deliberate staging recasts Jesus as a kind of maternal figure, connecting the protection he offered his adherents to one a mother offers her child. It’s a radical reframing of a story that has often been understood in paternalistic terms, whose prologue is itself a paternalistic genealogy. 

Pasolini may have approached the story in this way so that he could more personally connect with a text as widely known as the Gospel. The sufferings of motherhood were a central concern in both his life and work. When he was four years old and his younger brother Guido recently born, Pasolini’s father, an Army lieutenant, was arrested for gambling debts. Once the sentence ended, the family still relocated a number of times due to his father’s changing military posts. One can imagine Pasolini watching his mother cope with this turbulence and try regardless to raise her young sons with love and support. He and his mother would be bonded by tragedy after Guido’s death in an ambush during the Second World War. Pasolini continued to live with and look after his mother late into his twenties, when they moved to the low-income suburbs of Rome which would become the subject of his early films. 

Pasolini’s second feature, Mamma Roma (1962) took that world as its setting and also utilized Catholic imagery to tell a story of motherhood. It focuses on the title character, a former prostitute, and her sometimes misguided but always full-hearted attempts to protect her sensitive teenage son Ettore from the dangers of their neighborhood. At one point, a former colleague wryly observes to Mamma Roma that she would “die on the cross for that kid.” “You better believe it,” she responds. She would take on all of his suffering because, in any case, all that he suffers, she does as well. Pasolini makes this explicit in the film’s tragic finale, when Ettore is arrested after making a foolish decision. He ends up shackled to a prison bed, sick and afraid, calling for his mother’s help. Both of his hands are spread apart in a near-mirror image of Jesus on the cross. What gives this ending its intensity is Pasolini’s compassion — and, to an extent, nihilism — towards the emotional life of motherhood, the pain they endure when the world throws its weight against their sons, leaving them unable to do more than love them. Ettore’s dying image may mirror Jesus on the cross, but we know that his suffering won’t belong to himself alone. 

The theme of maternal suffering continued to compel Pasolini when he made his next feature, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, to the point that he cast his own mother, Susanna Pasolini, in the role of Mary Magdalene as an old woman. We first meet her when Jesus preaches the lines, “Who is a mother and who are brethren to me?…Whoever does the will of my father in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.” This a short paragraph in the text of the Gospel, Mary’s presence briefly acknowledged. But Pasolini stretches it out, having Jesus utter those words before his mother’s saddened face, as though conflicted between the life he has chosen to pursue and the hurt it must create for his mother. She wears a black cloak throughout the film, as though always in a state of mourning. Pasolini punctuates the scene by showing Jesus and his disciples around him looking towards his mother outside her simple home, his determined face coming close to regret, as he moves on to the next village. The moment is all the more poignant because we have already felt their implicit connection, making their separation all the more difficult.

Even the crucifixion scene largely omits the physical violence that Jesus endured and focuses instead on Mary’s emotional pain. The text of the Gospel again describes Mary as present at the event, but Pasolini imagines how she must have experienced it. After Pilate sentences Jesus to be crucified, the camera loses him in the chaos of the crowd running toward him, Mary trying with some help from the disciple Matthew to break through it and get to her son. When she finally does, we see the cross raised up with Jesus already nailed against it. The camera quickly cuts away to Mary collapsing in bereavement. It lingers on her for a far longer time than it does on Jesus, the brief cuts to him mainly serving to punctuate Mary’s pain. The scene is all the more powerful for the way that Pasolini simplifies it, choosing not to film the various and gratuitous methods in which Jesus was tortured. It becomes instead about a mother losing her son, about Mary’s suffering over Jesus’ suffering, though by this point we can feel that they are one and the same. 

Thankfully, Pasolini doesn’t stop there. Immediately after the crucifixion, we see Mary, surrounded by her son’s followers, taking flowers to his sepulcher. But the wall falls to the ground, revealing an empty cave with a loose, white cloak. The Angel who prophesied Jesus’ birth stands before Mary, who smiles peacefully. Mary is surrounded by followers, but Pasolini’s camera singles her out as the Angel reassures her that her son has risen and they will find him in Galilee. It’s difficult not to feel moved as Mary’s gentle smile widens, her big eyes glistening as though in gratitude. The film closes with a voiceover of Jesus’ final sermon as his followers run to find him and cuts to his face as he concludes with the line, “I am with you always, until the end of the world” — words that any mother would wish to tell their child in their darkest, loneliest moments. 

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