B&W, 1964, 137 mins.

Image / Water Bearer

Format: DVD

Letterboxed (1.85:1)

Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini

After wading through years of grandiose, ultralong religious epics like King of Kings, The Ten Commandments, and The Greatest Story Ever Told, this modern classic by the late Pier Paolo Pasolini must have come as a huge shock to viewers around the world. Commonly regarded as the high point of Pasolini's career, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) renders the familiar story of Jesus Christ from birth to death in a style that can only be described as a fusion of neorealism, cinema verite, and Felliniesque strangeness. Using zooms, handheld shots, and stark black and white photography, Pasolini created a dusty, highly believable world adn cast it largely with amateurs and people whose faces he found interesting to achieve a "true life" interpretation of the Biblical story and bring it home to even the lowest class viewers. The meditative pacing and sympathetic treatment of all of the characters (even Judas Iscariot) make this an uncommonly humane and, yes, reverent treatment, and it's interesting to note that Pasolini manages to accomplish ini a little over two hours what took Franco Zeffirelli an entire week with his popular Jesus of Nazareth.

The majority of the film focuses on the progression of Christ (Enrique Irazoqui) as he gathers his disciple and discards his aspirations of self-glory to become a symbol of repressed people everywhere. His trial by suffering involves such familiar side trips as the Salome/John the Baptist encounter (a great sequence) and the Last Supper, which leads into his persecution and the hanging of Judas. The performances are all typical Pasolini -- naturalistic almost to a fault. This is also the rare film in which Mary actually ages along with the narrative from a young girl to an older woman (played by Pasolini's mother; what's the message here?). While the decision to film this subject matter may seem strange for an avowed gay Catholic and Marxist, Pasolini adapts the story as an underdog tale for universal audiences, an everyman who could be walking among us in the streets right now.

While the transfer appears to be derived from the same print used for Water Bearer's tapes and Image's laserdisc a few years ago, the results here are noticeably improved. The opening credits are still in very rough shape, but the rest of the print (featuring legible, non-optional subtitles) is consistently sharp and detailed, with rich black scales and no noticeable pixillation or other artifacts. A few ragged points around the reel changes and the occasional scratch notwithstanding, this is easily the best this film has ever looked. The music, a surreal combination of excerpts from Mozart, Beethoven, and Prokofiev alternating with an original percussive score by Luis Bacalov, sounds as well as could be expected given the film's limited budget, and foreshadows Pasolini's use of pathwork music sources (with Ennio Morricone's consultation) for his "Trilogy of Life." If you're a Pasolini fan, looking to expand your foreign film collection, or simply want to see a good religious film without any pretentions or overacting, this is definitely a must-see.

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