Oh, my God! Five big-screen passions (perspectives on Christian spirituality)

Film, from the beginning a way to portray the unportrayable and bring to life what can only be conceived of through magic or dreams (the work of Georges Méliès springs to mind, for example), not only doesn't avoid the topic of God but, in fact, has presented biblical stories in a wide array of variations, from the early 20th century to today.
Frame of the film  The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), by Pier Paolo Pasolini

2. PERPLEXITY OF REALISM: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Quite far from the mark of Lutheranism, clear in Dreyer’s work (a way of getting down to the true core of faith, through the extreme experiences of Joan of Arc), a film like The Gospel According to St. Matthew, much more lyrical and evocative, nevertheless delves into the mystery of faith from its origins, taking the gospel in an alarmingly literal manner. Also shot in black and white, and without much in terms of set design, the biblical characters parade around quite spontaneously, perhaps justified by the inexperience of the actors portraying them. Beginning with the main character, the humble and consistent (therefore believable) Jesus Christ of Enrique Irazoqui, a student who recites the lines with deceptive lightness, like so many of Pasolini’s actors. Also convincing are the parents of the son of God: instead of portraying a modern psychology, they reflect an elliptical uncertainty, without words. With their looks, they only give glimpses of their fear at what they are involved in.

It doesn’t have a retrospective, triumphal view of the glory that would come from being called on by the Lord (to be the mother of God and the adopted father of Jesus), instead looking at the dangerous oddness of not knowing what would be the implications and consequences of their actions. Their faith makes them believe that everything will go according to divine plan, but they had no guarantees, obviously. Viewers attend the birth of Jesus in a stark setting, see how he grows as a child and does little-boy things, until he becomes a sensible self-assured young man. His preaching weaves in forceful affirmations and compassion for the disadvantaged or discriminated. Like a new Socrates, he lets himself be followed by anyone who wants to walk with him and listen to him. He doesn’t shy away from the danger of being near the infirm, or those who don’t care for him, who will end up betraying him. Memorable and tragic, the scene in which the disciples take it in turns to ask him to his face whether they will be the first to betray him, until Judas is given the response no one wanted to hear: “You said it.”

The indignity of the traitor facilitates the divine plan, which culminates with Christ’s death on the cross. The writing is on the wall, and seems foreseeable taking into account the Gospels, specifically according to Matthew, which is recited word for word in some moments (for example, the Sermon on the Mount). But alongside the literalness of the Gospels, silence is, paradoxically, the element that energises the drama. The lack of words spoken among the those involved, highly eloquent, is only surpassed by the dramatic flair of the religious music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang A. Mozart. The film makes the most of the emptiness of meaning (the impossibility of meaningfully, humanly depicting everything that happens) with the tremendously beautiful music of these two great creators. Music composed long before, but timeless. The exquisite simplicity with which the end of Christ’s life is filmed goes perfectly with the silence, and is amplified magnificently when accompanied with music. Grandiloquent and moving, there is also room for the blues, with the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.

Poster of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), by Pier Paolo Pasolini

In a similar fashion, the spontaneity of the inexperienced actors co-exists with the incomprehensible greatness of the divine presence, the logic of whose designs they update unconsciously. The close-ups, which show nuances of disconcerting realism, alternate with long shots. There are glimpses of individuals wandering in a semi-desert (filmed in southern Italy), which has been compared to Brueghel’s paintings. The actor’s spontaneity, revealing themselves naturally just as they are (without, apparently, any sort of acting) generates a unique perplexity, showing the incomprehensibleness of the Christian message from a distance. “It has been said that I have three idols: Christ, Marx and Freud… In truth, my only idol is reality,” Pasolini said. It is nevertheless significant that the director dedicated the film to John XXIII, the pope who wanted to enact profound change in the Church and was only thwarted by his premature death. In any case, the transgressive aspect of Pasolini’s Gospel lies in its respect for the text and use of direct, extremely simple language, which manages to convey the real complexity of belief, which was not at all clear in the early years of Christianity.