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Showing posts with label Judas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Judas. 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)

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.