The Best Easter Movie Of All Time Was Made By A Gay, Commie Atheist. No, Really

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Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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You may think Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is the quintessential Easter film. But there would be no “Passion” without Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 masterpiece, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.”

The Italian auteur was about as radically left-wing as one could be — even by the standards of his own turbulent time. He was openly homosexual, with an artistic (and often personal) fascination with extreme psychosexual taboos. He was a self-declared Marxist who took an active role in the communist movements of post-war Italy, despite significant points of contention with the Italian Communist Party. And although he was raised in a devout Catholic family, and those religious affinities permeated his thinking and career, he was an avowed non-believer. He’s worth remembering on the merits of his work alone, but his brutal abduction, torture and still-unsolved murder in 1975 solidified his legendary status as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

Pasolini was no run of the mill gay commie, however — a shitlib, as we might call them today. Rather, he was a radical’s radical who stood athwart the cutting edge of his own movement as fiercely as he critiqued the hierarchies and inequalities of Old Europe. His ultimate goal was communism, but he saw the falseness of the 1960s New Left student movement — and exactly where it was headed — with astounding prescience. As Italian society underwent violent upheaval in 1968, Pasolini critiqued the student militants as “daddy’s boys” with “petty bourgeois prerogatives,” akin to a new form of non-Marxist, left-wing fascism. He derided their affinity for Americanized consumerism and thirst for centralized power (and it was no accident that his films often used regional dialects rather than the Italian language). Meanwhile, he “sympathized with the police” as “children of the poor”— the true proletariat standing against decadent New Left movements.

“I have many enemies among the communists as I have among the bourgeois,” he wrote in 1968.

Pasolini’s relationship with communism mirrored his relationship with Catholicism. Just as he desired a truer communism absent its modern perversions, so too he revered an earlier Catholicism, stripped of its fineries, unshackled from the political and social hierarchies of the Church. Calling himself a “Catholic Marxist,” he believed Catholicism — its rituals, symbolism, and artistic legacy — were critical to maintaining Italy’s cultural identity and the social cohesion necessary for true “progress” amidst the commodification of Italian culture. The Church, he felt, maintained the bourgeois-capitalist status quo, while Catholicism, as originally intended, could lead to his desired political ends.

It is in this intersection that Pasolini’s “Gospel” was born. It is without a doubt a Marxist film crafted in the style of Italian neorealism, which held that average people could embody characters better than professional actors as they move about their own world. “Thin, stoop-shouldered, heavy-browed, anything but the muscular Christ of Michelangelo” was how Pasolini described 19-year-old economics student Enrique Irazoqui, to whom he was immediately drawn as the portrait of Jesus.

“Excuse me, but would you act in one of my films?” Pasolini asked him after a chance encounter (he also considered Jack Kerouac for the role).

As the older Virgin Mary, Pasolini chose to cast his own devout mother. The ensemble cast, which Pasolini often surveys as Jesus proselytizes, is made up of people picked off the street, and they’re depicted in all their toothless and disheveled glory. The camera moves fluidly throughout the gathered crowds, zooming in on one face after the next; they reveal their devotion without ever speaking a word. The score juxtaposes arias from J.S. Bach’s transcendental St. Matthew’s Passion with the contemporary African American folk music of Odetta, seeming to imply that all have access to the sublime. (RELATED: ‘Oppenheimer’ Is Not A Win For Conservatives)

The film is shot on location in Southern Italy, just as Gibson’s “Passion” was. Unlike the “Passion,” there are no ornate set designs, very few special effects, and absolutely no gore. In fact, there is nothing flashy at all about the film. It moves slowly in both pace and the physical mannerisms of the characters, mirroring the rhythm of peasant life. Even Jesus’ miracles are depicted without a fanfare; no heavenly haze, no trumpets blare as Jesus walks on water. Only the last several minutes of the film are dedicated to Jesus’ crucifixion. The film would not have worked if shot in color; the black and white adds a layer of simplicity that only draws out the beauty of the message.

However, Pasolini and Gibson proceed with the same goal: to show a realistic version of Christ that a sanitized, modernized, and above all inoffensive Christianity no longer wishes to portray. While Gibson, with his stylized gore and special effects, offers a patina of transgression, he delivers more shock value than substance. It certainly sold tickets with a marketing campaign built on controlled controversy, but in doing so, ultimately succumbed to the very commodification that Pasolini feared. Where Gibson fails, Pasolini triumphs.

This is not a cinematic interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew. It is the Gospel of Matthew, precisely as told in the Bible. Pasolini had no written script; the entirety of the dialogue is taken directly from the pages of the Bible itself. He does not inject narratives or context and draws no explicit contemporary parallels. He simply tells the story of Christ as it was originally told.

The film begins with a visibly pregnant Mary wordlessly staring down her fiancé. She’s just told Joseph she is carrying the Son of God. There’s no shame or pleading in her gaze. It’s a challenge: “I don’t care if you believe me. I know what I’ve been called to do. Are you with me or not?” He runs away. Devoid of any character development in the traditional sense, Pasolini fleshes out his characters solely with looks like these.

Pasolini proceeds to Joseph’s dream, the virgin birth, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt; the film then follows Jesus’ teaching, ministry, miracles and persecution; it ends with his Crucifixion and Resurrection.

This approach is meant to peel away the mythologized and majestic image of Jesus that developed over the centuries — the muscular Jesus of Renaissance sculptors; El Greco’s elongated, ethereal Jesus of The Resurrection; the dual nature of Christ Pantocrator in Byzantine icons — and emphasize his all too human side. Pasoloni humbles and humanizes Jesus, making him, and therefore his message, more accessible to the masses. He depicts Jesus as a man of the people as in truth, he was. Yet it is done with such reverence that it is all but impossible to discern Pasolini’s intent to make Christ a man of The People, in the Marxist sense. It is even one of the small handful of films to appear on The Vatican’s 1995 “Important Film” list.

This brings us back to Pasolini’s intersecting vision of Catholicism and Marxism. Unlike liberation theologists, who revert to calling Christ anything from a communist revolutionary to a transgender activist in a dimwitted, revisionist interpretation of scripture, Pasolini is unwilling to distort the Christ we find in the text. In fact, that Christ does not seem to embarrass him at all. Jesus does not have to be reinterpreted as a radical by contemporary ideological standards. His radicalism is timeless and transcendent.

This approach softens the “gospel” of Marx considerably, rendering it virtually indistinguishable from a true Christianity. Of course, Jesus’ teachings have fundamental contradictions with Marxism. Strip away the centuries of political and social hierarchy, and Christianity offers the genuinely humanizing ideal that Pasolini contends. But it is not possible to say the same of Marxism, which necessarily requires its own crushing, centralized hierarchy for it to work. Neither humanizing nor humbling, Marxism must brutalize the human spirit and strip away its inherent worth. It sublimates the entire basis of Christianity — that man is made in the image of God — in pursuit of an abstract common good. For this reason, Marxist consciousness forming can never succeed; powerful new hierarchies may seek to bend man to their will, but human nature will always resist to some extent. Pasolini does not accept this impossible contradiction, and instead sees it as a parallel to the faithful Christian seeking salvation: it is difficult, you will fail time and time again, but you must keep striving for God’s grace. So while he ideologically softens Marxism far beyond what the record of the 20th century shows, Pasolini simultaneously strengthens Christianity in a way we are no longer accustomed to seeing it today.

As a contemporary viewer, we see a version of Christ that is transgressive in a different way than it was to communists and clergymen in Pasolini’s day. With lagging church attendance and declining religiosity, churches often succumb to Christianity Lite,  an accommodationist appeal to their rapidly secularizing and disinterested flock. This Christianity makes few demands on its disciples, offering an unconditional, feminized Jesus. We get only the Jesus of love, of compassion, of peace. This makes it easier for casual Christians to partake, while attempting to leave behind the Church’s image as bigoted, backwards, and hateful to those who will hate it no matter what it does. If Jesus accepts you unconditionally, sin becomes an afterthought; the spiritual effort of repentance and sanctification is just too big an ask. (RELATED: Hollywood Has Forgotten Its Own Lessons On Masculinity — And One Timeless Classic Proves It)

Yet Pasolini reminds us that this is a perversion of the gospels’ message. Triumphant music plays and the camera pans into Jesus’ face, as he says to his disciples,

Do not imagine I have come to bring peace to the Earth; I have come to bring a sword, not peace.

I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 

A man’s enemies will include members of his own family. 

Anyone who loves his mother or father more than me, or anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me. 

If you cling to your life, you will lose it, but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. 

With these words, Pasolini shows us the masculine side of Jesus that Christianity Lite has suppressed: the Christ of accountability, of obedience, of righteous fury. Irazoqui’s Jesus is sober and stern; he does not emote, but commands. He reveals little tenderness when he tells us what we must do and has no compassion for those who reject the word of God. For Pasolini, this is the complement to Christ’s humanism, the enforcement mechanism that ensures we “do good” in the earthly sense. Yet it also reveals the warrior Christ, in whose name the Western world was built, organized, and civilized. Pasolini rejects this version of Christ as a politicized perversion of power hungry Church. But where would the world be without the conquistadors, the pioneers, the colonists of the New World? These men were moved, as they saw it, by the hand of God. They feared the wrath of God: they built civil codes to enshrine His word; they spread his gospel to the farthest reaches of the unknown; and they created humanity’s greatest works of art, literature, and music to elevate Him. They institutionalized the humanizing message of Jesus wherever they went, and enforced it with the sword. Yes, Jesus led a revolution in compassion, but that compassion is worthless, even destructive, without submission to God’s will.

Christians today can take a much needed lesson from Pasolini, as well as the Christ he depicts. Jesus’ love does not come free of judgment; it makes demands, requires sacrifice and labor. It does not come easy, but a true Christian has the duty to always strive for it. For all his faults, Pasolini himself stands as a model in this regard. A heterodox Marxist, and iconoclastic Catholic — he did not conform to the fads of the movements around him. He withstood all the forces arrayed against him and pursued salvation as he understood it. Christians today must heed this message, regardless of what the cultural currents of Christianity suggest. Your salvation depends on it, but so too does our civilization.