Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pasolini's "Wrathful Christ"

Today at Spirit of St. Stephen’s Catholic Community we heard John’s account of Jesus’ driving out of the money-changers from the Temple. It’s a story that depicts an angry Jesus – an anger fueled by awareness. Jesus was aware of the systemic injustice taking place around him, and of the negative impact that this injustice had on people – the poor in particular.

Before the Gospel reading was read this morning, a “contemporary” reading was shared. It was an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Like Jesus, Martin also displayed an awareness of systemic injustice and the need for radical transformation - in both the personal and social spheres.

The rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied together. They entered the same mysterious gateway of human birth, into the same adventure of mortal life. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present choices. We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

The angry Christ of today’s Gospel reading reminds me of something I recently read about Pier Pablo Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo).

Above: Director Pier Pablo Pasolini (center) and
Enrique Irazoqui (left), who plays Jesus, pause during filming
of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).

In his book, A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice, Maurizio Viano writes about why, of the four evangelists, Pasolini chose Matthew. As you’ll see from the following excerpt, one reason was because, according to Viano, “Matthew’s Christ is an angry Christ,” the “embodiment of a destructive reverence.”


Reportedly, Pasolini declared that he selected Matthew because he is the most “revolutionary” of the evangelists. . . . By this, he meant that Matthew’s text is the one which most offers unfamiliar glimpses of Jesus. To a larger degree than the other three, Matthew’s text allows for an appreciation of the multifaceted quality of Jesus’ teachings, which, in turn, explains how Christianity has managed to function as a storehouse of answers to such a wide variety of moral and political questions.

Furthermore, Matthew’s Gospel is most concerned with the problem of the relationship to the Law and tradition and, much to Pasolini’s liking, suggests an ambivalent attitude towards both. Any reader of Matthew’s text is bound to be struck by the recurrence of the formula, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” Tradition is invoked and corrected, accepted and refused. As a result, Matthew’s Christ is the embodiment of a destructive reverence, of an oxymoronic love/hate relationship with the Law. Such a gesture of simultaneous affirmation/negation is cleverly emphasized by a recurrent image in Pasolini’s film: Christ’s most often-repeated posture shows him walking decisely ahead, with his back to the camera and his face turned towards it. An image which stresses leadership but also conveys the sense of going ahead while looking back. Finally, it is the common understanding of those having even a superficial knowledge of the Gospels that Matthew’s Christ is an angry Christ. And anger is precisely the dimension which Pasolini’s visual translation wishes to highlight.

The desire to portray an angry Christ can be detected from His very first appearance, where He fades in over the image of a ragged and infuriated John the Baptist. While John’s violent words (“You viper brood,” Matt. 3:8-13) are taken from Scripture, the film adds a little visual detail, the image of three scribes casually passing by, which provokes John’s indignation, causes him to raise his voice, and sets the mood for Jesus’ appearance. His head draped with a dark shawl, Jesus advances slowly, without even a hint of a pacifying smile, his browline giving the impression that He is frowning.

Instead of following the order of Matthew’s text and starting Christ’s preaching in the fifth chapter, the film gives precedence to the previously mentioned passage from the tenth which so impressed Pasolini: “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace” (Matt. 10:34). After this initial statement, the film goes back to the skipped chapters, so that the rest of His words are tinged with the previously established sense of antagonism. All of the parables (much of chapter 13) and the eschatological sermons are missing from the film, while not a single word is omitted from His last harangue in Jerusalem. This part of the film is shot with a verité style which emphasizes the analogy with the present by evoking a sense of news coverage. Glimpsed from afar through a dodging and peeping camera, Jesus is nothing but a vehement voice thundering against “the blind leaders.” The point, of course, is not so much that we are in front of a Marxist Christ, as that He is not the gentle, all-loving Jesus of conventional, Catholic iconography. He is a wrathful Christ . . .


Mmm, maybe I shouldn’t feel quite so bad now about those times when I find myself angry at the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s “blind” stance on homosexuality!

I also simply must get around to renting and viewing the DVD of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew. This is the second time now that I’ve highlighted it here at The Wild Reed (see here for the first), and it’s definitely got me intrigued, especially after reading J. Clark’s informative and insightful review at Clark writes, for instance, that:

[Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew] is one of the most astonishing films I have seen: probing, complex, lyrical, and at times emotionally overwhelming. . .

Can you imagine a less likely candidate to make what, after 40 years, may still be the greatest and most moving film about Jesus Christ? Pasolini was not only a gay Marxist but a devout atheist. His fascination with Jesus may have connected with his most personal theme, that of the outsider (with his artistic, political and sexual nature, he saw himself as the consummate outsider). Although one of Italy’s leading intellectuals, he also moved among the laborers, indigents, and hustlers (some of whom were his lovers, not to mention the inspiration for his early poetry and novels), whose counterparts two millennia earlier had walked with Jesus.

. . . [The film] is like no biblical picture seen before; a quantum leap beyond the artificiality of, say, King of Kings, both De Milles’s silent version and Nicholas Ray’s 1961 remake, and later pictures like Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ are inconceivable without Pasolini’s model.

. . . This is filmmaking at its most subtle, resonant, and - while acknowledging the long tradition of Christian motifs in art - original. Pasolini brings together history, art and his own probing genius to depict Jesus in all of his humanity and divinity.

From what I can gather, the downside of The Gospel According to St. Matthew DVD is its technical quality. Timothy Hulsey, another reviewer at, notes, for instance, that “the only [available] soundtrack . . . is the English-dubbed version. The original Italian-language soundtrack is not available, and the sound mix is seriously compromised whenever the dubbing is inserted.” In addition, “the picture is barely watchable, and even shows a few lines here and there that make the film look as if it had been copied off an old VCR.” The DVD also lacks any extras. All this and more leads Hulsey to declare that “The Gospel According to St. Matthew is one of a few truly great religious films, but it has yet to receive even an adequate presentation on DVD.”


Anonymous said...

Our preacher today apologized for years of using today's Gospel as a justification for so-called righteous anger.

He noted that nowhere does the Gospel say Jesus is angry - it alludes to consuming zeal, not anger. Moreover, nowhere does it say that Jesus used the whip of cords on a person. If he struck any living thing, he may have prodded animals used to that as a cue to vamoose, as it were.

He said that the Gospel has been misused in the service of unholy rage, and he would not cooperate with that misuse anymore.

He also warned against the other common misreading of the Gospel - that the Temple at the core of the Judaism of Jesus' day was the problem. He noted that view has insidiously supported much in Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries.

It was an interesting homily.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Liam,

Interesting homily, indeed.

I wonder . . . if we believe Jesus was "fully human," why would want to deny him moments of anger - especially when this anger was in response to the dehumanization common to systems of domination and injustice?

Also, I think it's a bit of a stretch to equate what traditionally has been termed "righteous anger" to "unholy rage." Was that what your preacher was doing?

I don't believe anger itself is the problem but rather how we express it and what we do with it. (And no, I don't think Jesus whipped anyone - man nor beast!)

Perhaps Jesus' anger helped, in part, to fuel his "consuming zeal"!



Anonymous said...

Perhaps. But for people who are admonishing others to be careful to distinguish between what the Gospel actually says and what is oft said of the Gospels, it's a provocative reminder that provocative readings of the Gospel don't only go in one direction....

Anonymous said...

I just watched the film about a month ago. It is a great film, in my opinion. It is hardly a marxist look at the life of Jesus; more like a literal rendition of the Gospel of St. Matthew. He chose that gospel, from what I've read, not because it focuses on the angry Jesus, but precisely because it contains the greatest range of character traits. Certainly the film depicts a balance of anger and compassion. It's believed that the movie was inpired by the simple faith of Pasolini's mother. The film carries a formal dedication to John XXIII.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Michael R.,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film.

Your reading of it mirrors J. Clark's. He also notes that a range of emotions - not just anger - are depicted by Pasolini's Christ.

Still, from Viano's writings one does not get a sense of Pasolini's depiction of that "balance of anger and compassion" that both you and Clark perceive.

I guess I'll just have to watch the film and judge for myself.

Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your perspective.



kevin57 said...

If we are indeed created in the image and likeness of God...and if, indeed, we speak about God's "anger" and "wrath" (anthropormorphisms understood), then human anger (along with other emotional responses) is not bad, and should not be feared, in itself.

Matt Page said...

Thanks for posting the extensive quote from the Viano book - I've not come across it before.

Not sure whether you've watched this film or tracked down a version of it yet, but there are a number of other (and by the sound of it better) versions available. I've got the region 2 Tartan DVD, which is one of the best, but there are a few others - a number are compared at DVD Beaver.

Love the top image by the way> Where did you get it from?

Many thanks

Matt Page
Bible Films Blog

Dana Randall said...

I do believe that there is a theist hidden in the inner recesses of Pasolini's mind. Otherwise, he could not have created such a masterpiece on the celluloid. Agree to the fact that he was a Marxist. However, his was not an atheist at all. As he himself calls, he was more of a catholic Marxist.