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Showing posts with label Jesus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jesus. Show all posts

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child

This is a review of The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) (1964)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

31 May (updated, with Scorsese's comments, 1 June)

This is a review of The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) (1964)

Faces (and what – whenever we look at a face¹ – we think / imagine about that person²) are central to this film, though we start, with nothing to tell us so beyond the narrative of Matthew’s gospel, with a medium shot of the pregnant Mary, a virgin whose husband then takes an angled path off into the distance, and at a pace from the humble dwelling where we see her. The contrast is with when we see faces of the disciples, and of Jesus and others, later on :

The casting has been said to have been, in many cases, from those whose families were rooted in Sicily, but the truth of that claim matters relatively little : the actors have been chosen with care, and Pasolini has the camera gaze on the variety of faces that we see. Yet not as if they were subjects for Renaissance portraits, but as the portraits themselves – in this film, which speaks in the language of bearing, attitude, and gesture, as well as with the intensity of the repeated challenge to ‘normality’ of Jesus’ words on the lips of Enrique Irazoqui (who plays him³), the striking feature is the vividness of human expression :

Indeed, we may have the impression that Jesus’ mother Mary must have spoken, but we probably only hear her crying at the foot of the cross, for that opening interaction with Joseph was wordless, as it is when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have come, and it is in her presence and pose that she is fluent. (For the novice, a book such as Baxendall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy⁴ is an invaluable starting-point.)

By contrast with Mary, at times the film seems like a torrent of teaching from Jesus, with the familiarly gentle Sermon on the Mount (as it has come to be known) at a pace that challenges us to keep up with it, and thereby provokes us to see the innovation of this catalogue of assertions. Pasolini famously came at making this film not from the position of a believer, but supposedly having been struck by the story when he read Matthew’s gospel in a copy of the New Testament (i.e. the first gospel that he would have come to) , when waiting in his hotel for someone delayed by the attendant traffic of a Papal visit :

It is actually irrelevant how Pasolini came to the text, but crucial that he seeks to tell the gospel as it is written, and so effectively leaves us to determine – as we might with the credibility of many a film – what we believe, for, by showing it, he is really not slanting one way or the other whether this happened or who this Jesus was. (That said, IMDb makes this wayward suggestion to the contrary (as if Pasolini could / should have used the whole text) : Pasolini shows Christ as a marxist avant-la-lettre and therefore uses half of the text of Matthew.)

Saying that, his choice of music for the soundtrack is telling, because he builds on some cornerstones of Western tradition (as well as giving a spirit of otherness, in veneration, with the Gloria of the Congolese Missa Luba) with works such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and Mass in B Minor (BWV 232), in particular the Donna nobis pacem, as well as Mozart’s famous final Requiem in D Minor (K. 626) and – apparently when Jesus heals the two demon-possessed men (Matthew 8 : 28–34, but with no evil spirits entering into the pigs, perhaps for obvious practical reasons) in – Anton Webern’s Fuga (Ricercata) a 6 voci for orchestra (from Bach's Musikalisches Opfer (BWV 1079)).

Pasolini takes the grand sweep of the gospel, and gives it to us in a run-time of two hours and seventeen minutes. As observed above, when this film was clearly not attempting, ahead of its time, to be Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (from 1977), he inevitably omits things, but it is far harder than, for example, with some aspects of the relationship between Judas and Jesus in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), to say that there is a (potentially) revolutionary Jesus here – if so, the earthquake and darkening of the sun that Pasolini faithfully gives us are suddenly on a symbolic level, and represent the unstoppable force of history (as seen from the Marxist perspective)…

What, it is to be suggested, is that Pasolini makes a further gesture (to that mentioned above with The Sermon on the Mount) in the direction of challenging us with Jesus, and who he is and what he said, by making a remorseless montage : with tight editing, it has Irazoqui delivering saying hard on the heels of saying, not a few of them those that Jesus’ disciples might have called ‘a hard saying’ (John 6 : 60). Using different dress for Jesus, and immensely varying both the lighting (on Jesus and his background) and the scene, Pasolini might be hinting at the duration, over space and time, of Jesus’ ministry, as well as his claims that his kingdom is not of this world (reported in John 18 : 36), an evanescence of the world that we know in the monochrome juxtapositions of dark and light.

Sourced from Scorsese on Scorsese³ since writing the above :

[...] The biblical film that made the biggest impact on me, when I was at film school, was Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew, which in Italy was just called The Gospel According to Matthew.


Pasolini's use of faces was marvellous. It reminds me of Renaissance art even though it's in black and white, and I love the music - the Missa Luba and Bach. Just compare his Christ with Jeffrey Hunter[⁵]. He doesn't act walking, he is walking; it's not self-conscious and yet it's very determined.


This European style [of early Rossellini], in its simplicity, gave me the key to be able to make
The Last Temptation of Christ. The images have to resonate and be very, very strong.


The strength of Matthew's language comes out very clearly, and it's purer because it doesn't try to make it a straight story from beginning to end. There are no transitions between scenes, characters come and disappear, then reappear in no dramatic way.


He's a very strong Christ, you're either for Him or against Him, and some of the sermons do give you the sense of being yelled at and beaten down. [...]

[p. 136]

Much of what Scorsese makes explicit in these quotations (last read in January, in the chapter on The Last Temptation of Christ) is alluded to in the response to viewing the film above (or in the notes below).

In conclusion, these are the principal way-marks from the silent opening (with Jesus yet in the womb), to the other side of death, tasking his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28 : 18–20, usually known as The Great Commission) :

* Joseph leaves the pregnant Mary and goes into town, where he encounters a group of boys, and, dreaming, sees the angel

* Later, after the unfussy visit of The Magi (alongside the spiritual Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child), the angel appears again, telling Joseph and Mary to go into Egypt

* Then, in a landscape like that of china clay mining, the angel returns, saying that the man who wanted Jesus killed is dead, and that it is safe to go back

* Roaming over the faces of the disciples

* Through to Jesus’ ministry – baptism

* Returning, again and again, to John the Baptist in prison

* The Sermon on the Mount

* The leprous man’s face is suddenly healed – the fig tree that Jesus curses is shown withering straightaway – a lead into the saying about the mustard-seed / mountain

* Crippled man also told not to tell anyone

* The demon-possessed men (Webern’s music)

* Montage of teaching

* Palm Sunday (Missa Luba)

* Before the Chief Priest in the courtyard – the mood is edgy at that hearing, and before Pilate, with the camera back and forth behind the heads

* More emotion on Judas’ sense of betrayal than that of Peter ?

* Focus on the (wordless) grief of the older Mary, falling over, being helped up - her face – leading the way to the tomb – the stone falls over and the grave-clothes are there, then the angel appears

* The angel – timeless – curls - vaguely masculine, though feminine ?

* During the blackout, our eyes and ears are on alert

* The Great Commission


¹ As we do all the time, but seldom as unfleetingly as in the fourth Godfrey Reggio / Philip Glass collaboration, Visitors (2013).

² As Kit Downes says, Cats are persons

³ According to Martin Scorsese, in Scorsese on Scorsese (one in Faber & Faber's excellent series, where directors have conversations that have been edited to be by film (or group of films)), Irazoqui was a Spanish law student (ed. Thompson, David and Christie, Ian, Faber & Faber, London, 1989, p. 136).

⁴ Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1974.

⁵ In King of Kings (1961) (briefly discussed by Scorsese, loc. cit., p. 131).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Scorsese’s hesitation about Kazantzakis

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

8 February

This posting relates to a special screening at Wells Cathedral on 25 January

The last temptation is for Christ to get down off the cross and live the rest of His life as a normal human being
(Scorsese on Scorsese*, p. 124)

In his chapter in about The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) in this book, Scorsese talks about his collaboration with Paul Schrader, and how the latter produced a ninety-page script in four months (p. 117). Having been introduced to the original novel by Kazantzakis by Barbara Hershey and David Carradine in 1972 (p. 116), Scorsese says that this is what interested him about making a film of it :

I found the representation of Christ, stressing the human side of His nature without denying that He is God, the most accessible to me. His divine side doesn’t fully comprehend what the human side has to do; how He has to transform Himself and eventually become the sacrifice on the cross – Christ the man only learns about this a little at a time. In the whole first section of the book, He is acting purely on human emotions and human psychology, so He becomes confused and troubled. […]
(p. 116)

Talking about his own belief in relation to portraying Jesus in the film, Scorsese writes :

I believe that Jesus is fully divine, but the teaching at Catholic schools [Scorsese says that he has drifted away from the Church over the years, and is no longer a practising Catholic] placed such an emphasis on the divine side that if Jesus walked into a room, you’d know he was God because He glowed in the dark, instead of just being another person. But if He was like that, we always thought, then when the temptations came to Him, surely it was easy to resist them because He was God. He could reject the temptation of power in the desert; He could reject especially the temptation of sex; and He could undergo the suffering on the cross, because He knew what was going to happen, what death is all about.
(p. 124)

About involving Schrader by asking him to write a script, he comments :

Knowing that Paul Schrader and I have close affinities, I thought it would be interesting to see what a Calvinist approach to the book would be. It’s a very long book and I wanted a normal-length film, not a six-hour mini-series, so I thought Paul would be able to strip away all the unnecessary elements. The whole relationship between Mary Magdalene and the Apostles and how they were fighting with each other, all that was fascinating, but couldn’t be put in the film. […]
(p. 117)

Schrader and he discussed the treatment of the miracles (and the importance of the supernatural existing alongside the natural), and depicting Jesus terrified by them, not smiling (p. 118), as he gradually realizes that they lead to the cross (p. 120). For Scorsese, the key scene, when Jesus knows that He is God, is the raising of Lazarus, where Jesus is momentarily pulled into the tomb (the symbolism is clear), before leading Lazarus out (p. 143).

Scorsese acknowledges that some people have said that the book is more Kazantzakis than Jesus (p. 143), but he did go to the trouble of meeting the writer’s widow, and of exploring his life from staying in a monastery on Mount Athos to the books that he wrote in the last ten years of his life (p. 145).

Those who want to say that the film is blasphemous (see below), because it shows Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene, seem not to bear in mind that neither Kazantzakis, nor Scorsese, is subscribing to the theory that Jesus actually did have a family with her – this is the content of the temptation, the ‘last’ of the title, that both book and film are about, but it is not saying that it happened, but what if Jesus were tempted on the cross to believe that he did not have to die there to fulfil his purpose ?

These are very different ascriptions to Kazantzakis and Scorsese, but those levelling the criticism seem slow to understand the difference. Regarding the relationship that the book puts at the centre of that last temptation, Scorsese has written :

One problem I have with the book is the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. If there had to be sexual temptation, it could be another woman; for it to be Mary seemed kind of obvious. And the fact that she became a whore specifically because he rejected her is almost as bad as the Hitchcock movie I Confess, where Montgomery Clift becomes a priest basically because he was jilted by Anne Baxter. As the young priest whom I adored when I was young said, that doesn’t happen, because you have to have a vocation otherwise you’d only last a week in the seminary ! I Confess is an interesting movie nevertheless, but I found a similar difficulty with Kazantzakis.
(p. 143)

Yet Scorsese seems not to have been put off, and writes about what he hoped for from the film :

[...] I found this an interesting idea, that the human nature of Jesus was fighting Him being God. I thought this would be great drama and force people to take Jesus seriously – at least to re-evaluate His teachings. […] So through the Kazantzakis novel I wanted to make the life of Jesus immediate and accessible to people who haven’t really thought about God in a long time. I certainly didn’t think the film would destroy the faith of those who believe strongly [Editor’s emphasis].
(p. 124)

The cynical may doubt Scorsese’s sincerity in the passages quoted above : of course, his motives and beliefs may be questioned, if one thinks that making the film is itself blasphemy. Here are two letter-writers points of comparson (they are said to have appeared in the Wells Journal on 23 January 2013 [sic]) :

One does not have to consider a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine as worthy of contemplation, despite any dubious claims to artistic merit either.
Paul Arblaster

The film’s photography and musical score are of good quality. The 1936 Olympic games stadium in Berlin was of good quality too. This is hardly the point.
Fr Ewan, Po Wo and Donna-Marie MacPherson

So Nazis, and a deliberate act of provocation, are the chosen points of reference ?


* Faber & Faber, London, 1996, p. 124.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 25 June 2012

Tu es Petrus

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

25 June

There may be others who remember an averagely diverting series about a gumshoe - if he wasn't a serving police officer - called Petrocelli. (Probably, I could find out, and even buy some DVDs on Amazon for old time's sake, but there's already too much else to watch.)

He made me think (remembering the name caused the thought) of petrochemicals and petroleum, as well as whether it was a plausible Italian surname, and that took me to what Jesus said to Peter:

Much theology wants to describe what happens when Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Jesus (using different words for the verb 'to love', as C. S. Lewis and others have observed), and to call what Jesus then says to him the 'reinstatement' of Peter. Me, I don't know whether he was reinstated or not (i.e. whether he needed reinstating).

What I do know, as others point out, is the pun that comes out in the Latin version of what was said (presumably from the Vulgate, unless, at this point in the gospel (or is it in Acts?), Jesus utters the words in Latin), which is where we came from with these products and fuels derived from what is under the rock. That, and Jesus, referring to Peter as a foundation (taken as the basis for the authenticity of the Roman Catholic faith*) when he says that on him he will build his church.

I think that it it the word ecclesia that he would have used, from which we, in turn, derive Ecclesiastes and ecclesiastical law, but I really don't know what was meant: not, I suspect, a church as we have it to-day, even if a body of people (rather than a building), and also not, I suspect, the unbroken line of succession that is supposed to go back to Peter (as the basis for the Vatican and what foes with it)...

Funny where thinking about a detective's name takes you!


According to, 'The Holy See consists of the Roman Curia and other offices and services which assist the Supreme Pontiff in the Petrine Ministry'.

Friday, 27 April 2012

What did Jesus teach about bluebells? (1)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
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29 April

It needs saying: he does not, in the surviving written record, mention them at all.

However, we can infer that he was not indifferent to them (and their social aspirations), because he did talk about or engage with:

1. Lilies in all their finery

2. King Solomon in that connection (famous for his mine)

3. Wheat

4. Other crops*

5. Pigs (and a casting-out of devils involved swine)

6. Vines and 'the fruit of the vine'

7. Fig-trees

8. Sheep and lambs

9. Lamb as meat (in German, Osterlamm for the Passover meal)

10. Bread

11. Wine-vinegar

12. Wine

13. Vines

To be continued


* Which would have chimed with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Love and Death (1975)

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Meditations on Matthew

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

9 March

Tim Brown, whose conducting I always find infectious to watch, brought together the forces of Cambridge University Bach Ensemble and Cambridge University Chamber Choir in to-night’s performance of the perennial Lententime Bach work, which never fails to find an audience.

To-night’s, if it – as I did – needed to read what Tim had written about the piece at the front of the programme to appreciate this truth, would have seen what he said about what determines how it unfolds to be perfectly correct: much about what The Matthew Passion (BWV 244) ends up being in performance is a result of the way in which the recitative of The Evangelist is delivered.

As I noticed for the first time in this performance (though I have heard two or three others before), three times he introduces Jesus saying, with remarkable economy and concision, Du sagest's*:

(1) The first is an answer to Judas, asking whether he is the one to betray him, Bin ich's, Rabbi?.

(2) The second is when Jesus is already before the High Priest, who seeks to compel Jesus to say whether he is The Christ with the words Ich beschwöre dich bei dem lebendigen Gott, dass du uns sagest, ob du seiest Christus, der Sohn Gottes.

(3) The final one is a little further on, when, before Pilate now, he is asked Bist du der Juden König?.

Of course, the threefold repetition chimes with Peter's three denials. Just as much as Judas, Peter betrays Jesus, first by saying Ich weiss nicht, was du sagest, and then, twice, Ich kenne des Menschen nicht. And we are led straight to what is almost certainly the aria in the piece capable of most beauty, Erbarme dich, mein Gott**, which made such an impression on me when Tarkovksy used it in The Sacrifice (1986), his final film.

As to the other two denials, one is by the High Priest, who tears his clothes and accuses Jesus of blasphemy for what he says about how the Son of Man will be seen seated at the right hand of glory and coming on the clouds of Heaven; the other is by the head of the secular authorities, who seems to see through the motives of those who seek for Jesus to be crucified, but ultimately seems powerless to resist the crowd that has been worked up to bay for his blood***.

Enough on the performance for now, save to say that Stefan Kennedy (as The Evangelist) and Nicholas Mogg (as Christus) both showed a feel for delivering recitative where some of the members of the choir, who had solo spots but also a passage of recitative immediately before, appeared vocaly less comfortable, and almost as though it were a chore to be got out of the way before the aria: as becomes quite evident when seeing the work, Jesus does say remarkably little in the quite lengthy time taken before the High Priest and then Pilate, and not because he has nothing to say, but Nicholas Mogg concentrated extremely well to give a cohesive Jesus.

In the case of Stefan Kennedy's recitative, I only felt very occasionally that it was a little rushed (and that only towards the end of the piece), but that it was otherwise carefully and thoughtfully paced to best effect****: I was certainly won over by how he placed emphasis as the interpretation developed, and, with a solid but often silent Jesus, there was an interesting dynamic between them.

All in all, not least with regard to the quality of the instrumental playing from the Bach Ensemble (with a highly solid continuo line from Dan Smith on organ and Kate Aldridge on violone), a very fine Matthew Passion!


* The quotations are all taken from the text as it is given in the insert to the first version, on LP, that I owned of this work, as just an English translation was printed in the programme - I largely followed the German in that insert, but referred to the programme.

** Though this is not the only time that this verb is used, because it is in a passage of recitative that recapitulates that Jesus has been given over by Pilate to be scourged, ready for crucifixion. In the meantime, Judas has repented of his actions in accepting money to betray Jesus to the religious authorities, and there is a telling bass aria after he has thrown the money back at them and gone away and hanged himself:

Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder!
Seht, das Geld, den Mörderlohn,
Wirft euch der verlorne Sohn
Zu den Füssen nieder.

*** I was reminded a little how the Tribunes in Coriolanus (most recently seen as a film directed by Ralph Fiennes, who plays the title role) also stir the crowd.

**** With a few vowel-sounds, there seemed some variance from the text that I was following, but the score being used may have adopted a different editorial policy with regard to rendering past tenses in eighteenth-century German.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Merry birthday ! (1)

More views of - or after - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
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19 January

If anyone can explain what has been raised by adapting some Christmas labels to identify whose is which of two presents being sent together, I'd be glad to know:

We say Happy Christmas and Merry Christmas interchangeably, but we only say Happy birthday*...


* The same is true of Easter, actually - does Christmas especially embody merriment (a word used twice by friends this season, when it has no common place in our vocabulary)? Plus there is the word 'mirth', rhymed with 'birth' in the Sussex Carol in a line (or part-line) that goes something like 'news of great mirth': the birth of Jesus is not what we would nowadays think of as a subject for mirth. (I must check, but I think both that the words 'merriment / merry' and 'mirth' are cognates, and that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight may shed light on an older meaning of the latter... - it does, so see, if you will, Merry birthday ! (2))