Allie Thomas

(Bad) Jesus Stories

Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew is, in the director’s own words, about “the life of Christ after two thousand [sic] years of stories on the life of Christ.”[1] Since Pasolini was famously known for being an outspoken atheist, Marxist, and homosexual, the beautifully reverent tone of the film took some of his contemporaries by surprise. In 1966, Pasolini was asked in a press conference why he, as an unbeliever, chose to make such a film about the life of Christ. His response was thus: “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”[2]

The tale behind Pasolini’s decision to make this film might attest to such “nostalgia for a belief.” In 1962 he was invited by Pope John XXIII to attend a seminar in a Franciscan monastery in Assisi, Italy, where a dialogue between the Church and non-Catholic artists was to take place. Upon arrival, Pasolini became confined in his hotel room due to the immense amount of traffic in the town. While in the room he came across a New Testament Bible and read through all four of the Gospels in one sitting. He was so taken by the stories that he put all of his other film ideas on hold and decided to make a film adaption of one of the Gospels.[3] He wanted to only use dialogue directly taken from the Bible,[4] amateur actors, unconventional filming techniques and a myriad of historical songs and images in order to let the film take its own direction—telling a contemporary, unique interpretation of the Gospel, what he called “remak[ing] the Gospel by analogy.”[5]

“Remak[ing] the Gospel by analogy” allows for much ambiguity, but perhaps it is one way of re-interpreting or re-mythologizing the canonical life of Christ. One possible hermeneutical approach that could be taken towards this artistic interpretation of the gospel story is that of Mark A. McIntosh, who reads early Christian mystical texts in his book Mystical Theology. McIntosh argues that mystical texts are not merely cataphatic accounts of a mystic’s highly subjective experience with the divine—a common stance theologians have taken to dismiss the validity of mystical texts in academic theology—but that they consciously operate in a “cataphatic-apophatic” way: alternating affirmation and humble denial of theological knowledge. This structure is meant to invite the reader, through gaps and negations, into a moment that restructures perceptions. This cataphatic-apophatic language and imagery make the reader aware of the multiplicity of earthly meaning and interpretation, clearing space for the reader to encounter a more ultimate Meaning.

Applying this interpretive framework to Pasolini’s depiction of the gospel story, it could be argued that Pasolini is, on one hand, attempting to make a cataphatic statement about Christ and the gospel story by re-mythologizing it in the context of his life and of Italian life in general. Pasolini’s depiction of Jesus is incredibly human: “he eats the meager meal of lower classes, he dresses in the simple clothing style of his contemporaries and he stumbles over the rough and dusty roads that serve all who live in the back country of the Roman Empire….[I]t is a vision that thrusts him squarely into the midst of his fellow strugglers.”[6] What this portrayal of Christ does at its best, however, is recognize the political realities of Jesus’ life on earth. Pasolini does not make light of the struggles Jesus experienced with institutional Judaism during his ministry and consistently depicts both Jesus and John the Baptist as “enemies of the Pharisees and Sadducees, those vipers who await at every corner to trap, condemn, and kill our heroes in a web of lies and deceit.”[7] This is a message and depiction of Christ that would have been quite powerful to both Pasolini and the Italian audience that encountered his film at the time, who were in the midst of a political struggle between the exploited agrarian South of Italy and the oppressive industrial North.[8] Perhaps then what Pasolini’s film achieved was an articulation of the values of Jesus’ ministry in a “contemporary idiom”—a new language that reoriented the Italian people’s understanding of Christ and what his message meant for them in a particular time in history.

Alternatively, Pasolini repetitively uses “2,000 years of Christian painting and sculptures” throughout the film. “The look of the characters is also eclectic and, in some cases, anachronistic, resembling artistic depictions of different eras. The costumes of the Roman soldiers and the Pharisees, for example, are influenced by Renaissance art, whereas Jesus’ appearance has been likened to that in Byzantine art as well as the work of Expressionist artist Georges Rouault.”[9] It could be argued, then, that through the use of historically diverse imagery about the gospel story, Pasolini is making a sort of apophatic acknowledgement that his interpretation of Christ is just one interpretation after two thousand years of stories on the life of Christ.

The title of the film gives us further proof of Pasolini’s effort to remind viewers of the humanness of the four gospel stories and their authors. Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew) is the original title of the film, universally—and mistakenly—translated into English with a St. in front of Matthew. This is no minor overlook or indiscretion for Pasolini, but an intentional reminder that Matthew’s interpretation is not only just one of the four gospel interpretations in the Bible, but is one that has subsequently inspired a rich history of other gospel interpretations in various cultures and periods.

This cataphatic-apophatic structure of Pasolini’s film creates a space in which the viewer is made aware that this is just one interpretation among many, and is also invited to take an active role in the interpretation of the narrative. And while this work of art, viewed alone, may present a distorted or partial vision of Christ and his life, I would argue that its self-acknowledgement as an interpretation allows us to learn some new kind of truth or vision of Christ. Moreover, if this vision of Christ is one that pulls us out of our comfortable, highly subjective interpretative framework, encouraging us to compassionately seek out and recognize both the human and divine “other”— paradoxically known in intimate proximity yet unknowable in a radical separateness—then it attests to how an artistic work that limps in its depiction of Christ and the gospel story can still have both spiritual and theological ramifications.

Such ramifications are further fleshed out in Rowan William’s Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, in which he leads with the question, “Is there an unavoidably theological element to all artistic labor?”[10] In this text, Williams converses with ideas of artistry and beauty from Jacques Maritain’s works (which are in conversation with Thomas Aquinas). Williams is fascinated by Maritain’s idea of how good art shows that “things give more than they have.”[11] In other words, in the process of making art, something more will come into focus than the artist originally intended—the particular medium can perhaps dictate a direction itself. Williams argues, then, that “the artist does not set out to change the world—but if we can manage the paradox—to change it into itself.”[12] In this way, the process of making art is a kind of interpretive process that is, firstly, concerned with forming and “chang[ing] it into itself” and then, unbeknownst to the artist, it may also change both him and the viewer.

Williams posits that art that most affects both the artist and the viewer is art which “limps”: “finite beauty or finishedness in the work being always incomplete at some level, ‘limping’ like the biblical Jacob, from the encounter with what cannot be named; achieved art always has ‘that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite.’”[13] This bending or “limping” in a work, whether in interpretative content or in aesthetic form, is a sort of apophatic acknowledgment of the finite means by which one can achieve knowledge of God.

Williams further suggests, however, that although an artist is only pointing to God in a broken, partial way, the work may still be emotionally and theologically valuable to the artist and the viewer because there is an element of integrity involved in the creative process. That is to say, the artist is not so much concerned with the genius of his or her own work, but instead allows the art to dictate its own form and fashion, attesting to something greater than itself and the artist in the process. A piece of artwork that stays true to the integrity of artistic labor can not only open up room for the viewer or the artist to see themselves in a new light, but also the “other,” both divine and human, in a new light.

This “limping” characteristic is not only evident in Pasolini’s specific interpretation of the Christ story but also in his method of filming. The overall tone of the film also has a dream-like quality by using erratic editing patterns and poor quality of film, both of these being intentional and not marks of an amateur director. Through such, Pasolini achieves this disorienting, otherworldly weight that invites viewers to see themselves within the narrative. This dream-like quality is made even more palpable by the intentional use of unprofessional actors: “the actors are frequently captured as unposed, in a state of vulnerability, as if they were caught unawares by the camera; they seem more than a bit uncomfortable with what they are doing.”[14] The achieved effect is a series of raw, primal images. The combination of close-ups, jump cuts, grainy film and unprofessional actors present us with something more than just a narration of Christ’s narrative, but also Pasolini’s personal, “subjective” experience with the story as well. These filming techniques blur the lines between the “subjective” experience of Pasolini and supposedly objective nature of the camera.

In what Pasolini terms a “cinema of poetry,” different shots, movement of camera and editorial techniques also work towards inviting the viewer into a space in which the lines of reality and text, the “objective” camera and the “subjective” point of view of the character, are blurred. Within this filmic framework, Pasolini employs a shot/reverse-shot strategy technique, in which the camera intentionally and repetitively focuses on specific characters’ faces. Throughout the film, Pasolini’s camera seems to either be focused on the face of Christ or those of the people surrounding them. There is a constant back and forth between the images of faces in which we learn just as much about Matthew’s narrative of Christ from those that witnessed it than we do from Christ himself. This technique is clearest of all in the crucifixion scene, in which shots focused on Mary’s anguished face, screaming in pain as she watches her son be crucified, go back and forth between shots of the crucified Christ.

In contrast to the more traditional use of shot/reverse-shot, in which the technique is subordinated to the flow of narrative information, Pasolini’s shot/reverse-shot is not employed to push the narrative of the story but instead to disorient our gaze from either face by throwing us back and forth from one to the other. This movement of the camera, by disorienting our gaze, creates a “limp” in the narrative and aesthetic structure, an apophatic space in which we can co-experience with Pasolini the mysterious and fantastic event of the crucifixion. On one end, Pasolini’s montage of faces seems to express the emotional points of view of both Jesus and Mary. On the other end, “the change in the frame rate calls attention to the style of the film, and marks the editing strategy as the expression of Pasolini, who is also emotionally reacting to the scene.’’[15] Indeed, all of the cinematographic techniques that Pasolini employs throughout the film open up ambiguous spaces in which we are invited to engage with the experiences of both Pasolini and the characters in the film while having our own experience.

Finally, this discussion of Williams and McIntosh shows us that through the cataphatic-apophatic structure of the film, Pasolini displays how an artwork that re-interprets or re-mythologizes the gospel story, but acknowledges that it “limps” or contorts in its interpretation or artistic representation, can have strong theological and spiritual implications. Andrew Tate, in his book Contemporary Fiction and Christianity, helps us understand why these implications are so relevant in contemporary culture: “both philosopher and skeptical artist, from different perspectives, recognize that inadequate images of divinity have come to dominate the contemporary religious imagination.”[16] However, “in spite of the sentimental images that dominate popular representations of Jesus, post-Christian, postmodern cultures continue to be fascinated by this strange and elusive figure, the man who claimed to be God.”14 Narratives such as The Gospel According to Matthew, while they may very well be sentimental, singular, “heterodox or heretical images,”[17] can nevertheless speak a certain truth to a certain person or groups of people in a certain situation. This is perhaps why films, novels and artworks that bend or contort the canonical story, acknowledging both its role and the viewer’s role as continual interpreters of the narrative, particularly resonate with the culture’s imagination.

If these images of Christ truly resonate with culture, then we must ask ourselves: Does art that consciously bends or contorts the message of Christ offer the best depiction of Christ humanly possible? Or as Williams puts it, “the most effective depictions of God and grace and Christ these days are going to be sideways on and a bit different.”[18]

While Pasolini’s film is quite mild in its interpretation of the gospel story, and mostly praised instead of criticized, there are countless artworks that portray the life of Christ in a more provocative, heretical and, some would argue, just plain bad way. Nevertheless, these stories can still interact with listeners and viewers even when their message is bent or distorted from the original. Perhaps, then, we should take a second look at that novel or film that got the story wrong or told it in a weird, unfamiliar way. Because if we choose to widen our expectations, we might witness a new aspect of Christ and his gospel that both opens up our stale understandings and prejudices and encourages us to compassionately seek out the “other,” both divine and human.


[1] Luigi Martellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini; Retrato de un intelectual, (Valencia: Universitat de Valencia, 2006), 118.

[2] Maria and Gregory Pearse, “Pasolini: Quo Vadis?: The Fate of Pier Paolo Pasolini,” Cinema Seekers, n.d.

[3] Barth David Schwartz, Pasolini Requiem (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992).

[4] This is actually not entirely true. Pasolini does insert some text into the film that is not directly from the Gospel of Matthew.

[5] John Wakeman, World Film Directors, Volume 2, (The H. W. Wilson Company, 1988), 746.

[6] Richard C. Stern, Savior on the Silver Screen (New York: 1999), 72.

[7] Ibid., 74.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Wakeman, World Film Directors, 747.

[10] Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2005), 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 18.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] soss 93

[15] Patrick Keating, “Pasolini, Croce and the Cinema of Poetry,” Scope (June 2001), 11.

[16] Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity, Continuum Literary Studies Series (London ; New York: Continuum, 2008), 24.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Rowan Williams, quoted in Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity, Continuum Literary Studies Series (London ; New York: Continuum, 2008), 24.