The Gospel According to St. Matthew

As an avowed Marxist, homosexual, and, frequently, atheist, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini may seem to some a dubious choice to have made one of the most realistic, faithful, and, more than anything else, best films about the life and death of Jesus Christ. But, with The Gospel According to St. Matthew, from 1964, that's exactly what the acclaimed filmmaker, poet, novelist, and theorist did.

This gritty, unpolished depiction of the life of Christ contains many of the narrative hallmarks featured in other film versions of the same topic: the virgin birth, the early miracles, the apostles, Christ's persecution and, ultimately, the crucifixion. No other cinematic depiction of this story looks, sounds, or feels quite like this one though. 

Before making this film, Pasolini had directed his first feature, Accattone!, in 1961, followed by Mamma Roma, starring the astonishing and incomparable Anna Magnani, in 1962. He next directed the short segment, "La ricotta," for the 1963 compilation film Ro.Go.Pa.G. "La ricotta" was about a film crew, led by its director (played by Orson Welles), who are making a film about Christ. One of the members takes a position on a cross set up for the crucifixion scene, where, due to all of the food he just ate (including large quantities of cheese - hence the title), he unbeknownst to everyone else dies, from apparent indigestion. This short film, coupled with some of his past writings - much of which was heavily condemnatory of the Catholic church - led to charges of blasphemy and defamation of religion against Pasolini.

Nevertheless, one day Pasolini was preparing to leave Rome. As it so happened, the Pope was in town as well and was also departing. Roads were closed and traffic was at a stand-still. Pasolini wasn't going anywhere, at least not until the Pope made his exit. With nothing else to do to kill time, Pasolini found his hotel room bible. He began reading and was inspired. He found his next film subject - however unlikely. It was, as he would jokingly tell his Christian friends, part of their "delightful and diabolical calculation."

It took much convincing, but eventually Pasolini received the blessing and the assistance of the church. He argued that, aside from being well-versed in Catholicism, as much of Italy at the time certainly was, he also had a profound compassion for marginal figures, those neglected, those on the fringes of society, those, in other words, whom Christ would have embraced. Having spent considerable time in the poor slums of Italy, Pasolini said he saw scavengers and hustlers literally as "fourteen-year old Christs." He also understood, due to his political, sexual, and ideological inclinations, what it was like to face persecution. It's little wonder then that his Christ would be strongly shown as a revolutionary figure. He was, as Pasolini saw him, "an intellectual in a world of the poor, available for revolution." There was also the issue of maternal relations. The Mary and Christ relationship is obviously well-known, but Pasolini too had a notable bond with his mother, and she would always play a crucial role in his life. It's probably no coincidence that his own mother would portray the older Mary at the end of the film.

With economics student Enrique Irazoqui cast in the lead, Pasolini's aim was to "follow, point for point, the gospel according to Saint Matthew, without making any script and without any reduction." He added, "I will faithfully translate images, without omissions to or deletions from the story. Even the dialogue must be strictly that of Saint Matthew, without even a line of explanation or feeder lines: because no images or words inserted can ever be of the poetic height of the text.…  I want to make a work of poetry. Not a religious work in the current sense of the term nor a work of ideology. In words both simple and poor: I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer – at least not consciously. But I believe Christ to be divine and I believe there was in him a humanity so great, rigorous and ideal as to go beyond the common terms of humanity.”

The film premiered Sept. 4, 1964 at the 25th Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Special Jury Prize. It would go on to also receive the Catholic Film Office Grand Prize. Critical reception, as one would expect with this subject matter, and with this filmmaker, ran the gamut. It was called, "A religious film and religious propaganda beneath the facade of a faithful transcription of the Gospel made by a Marxist..."; it was "A fine film, a Christian film that produces a profound impression." "The author - without renouncing his own ideology - has faithfully translated, with a simplicity and a human density sometimes moving, the social message of the Gospel - in particular the love for the poor and oppressed - sufficiently respecting the divine dimension of Christ," wrote one critic. "The fact is that this film is an authentic preaching of Communism, using the words of Matthew maliciously interpreted ... to have given this work a prize, and even in the presence of Fathers [of the church] was a humiliating concession to error ... to confusion," wrote another.

It's hard to imagine that today this film could stir the sort of contentious reaction of Hail Mary (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), or even The Passion of the Christ (2004) - make no mistake though, King of Kings (1961) it is not. As with many movies dealing with religious topics, views on the film are going to be heavily swayed by personal belief, usually before quality of filmmaking can be assessed. But if one is able to wipe aside spiritual sensibilities and focus on craft, The Gospel According to St. Matthew surely stands as one of the best films to undertake this sensitive subject. Indeed, it is simply one of the great works of world cinema. Pasolini's distinct style, a modern, art-film blend of neorealism and documentary, is rugged and unadorned. The performers, though competent enough here, particularly the engaging Irazoqui, are all nonprofessionals; and the settings (in Italy) and costumes are remarkably authentic, yet notably peculiar.

Pasolini would continue to make films throughout the 1960s and into the '70s. This would include three extraordinary trilogies: those of his "mythic" period - Oedipus Rex (1967), Teorema (1968), and Medea (1969), and those of his "third path," the films that comprise his "Trilogy of Life" - The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). His last film, the brilliant Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), based on the Marquis de Sade's infamous work, would not be his final film by design. After completing this immensely powerful and extremely unsettling movie (maybe the most disturbing I've ever seen), Pasolini was found brutally murdered, under what are still mysterious circumstances. Pasolini, one of the greatest of all filmmakers, died November 2, 1975, at the age of 53.


The Gold Rush

“A sort of Adam from whom we are all descended.” – Federico Fellini on Charlie Chaplin

With The Artist and Hugo both released last year, it appeared that there may be a sudden return of interest in cinema's silent era. But, now that the novelty of these new releases has worn off, it seems we're back where we were with a vast majority of audiences placing little to no significance on films made prior to 1927 (if not prior to 1970!). However, there has always been somewhat of an exception to this. There is one holdover from the silent period that still warrants attention, admiration, and unadulterated joy, and one that undoubtedly still stands the test of time. That is the work of Charlie Chaplin.

There's still something about Chaplin's endearing and enduring little Tramp that maintains a special place in the hearts and minds of movie lovers of all ages. Taking a walk down Hollywood Boulevard, there are people dressed as superheroes, as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character, as Marilyn Monroe, and as Darth Vader; but there amongst these popular, rather contemporary movie figures is another, the lone representative of the silent era – it's Charlie … and everyone still knows who he is.

What better way to celebrate this legendary film comedian than to watch one of his best, The Gold Rush, from 1925? On the heels of their recent releases of The Great Dictator (1940) and Modern Times (1936), the Criterion Collection's remastered Blu-ray edition of The Gold Rush hits shelves June 12.

With the possible exception of The Kid (1921), one could easily make the case for The Gold Rush as being Chaplin's best film until the 1930s, and this counts his shorts (he has more than 50 to his credit, the first of which were released in 1914). It also stands as a sort of preview of what was to be an enormously accomplished string of films to follow: City Lights (1931), Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and, later, Limelight (1952), where he shared the screen with fellow cinematic legend Buster Keaton.

Chaplin conceived of the idea for The Gold Rush based, in part, on some streoscopic slides he viewed at "Pickfair," the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. These were images of the Klondike and of lines of hopeful prospectors anxiously seeking to stake their claim. The other part of Chaplin's inspiration came from a more unlikely source: the tragic Donner party and its gruesome conclusion.

The Gold Rush, certainly by comparison to the films Chaplin made previously, was a massive undertaking, with hundreds of extras and its fair share of behind the scenes drama, namely the relationship trouble Charlie had with his original leading lady in the film, Lita Grey. Just as filming was underway, the 16-year-old Grey got pregnant … by Chaplin. Much to Chaplin's chagrin, the two were forced to marry. Grey would be replaced by Georgia Hale, with whom, so it has been reported, Chaplin subsequently began having an affair with. (In a tantalizing Hollywood case of what could have been, the stunning Carole Lombard tested for the temporarily vacant role).

Scandalous anecdotes aside, there can be no denying the comic genius at play in The Gold Rush. It is a veritable clip-show in and of itself of classic silent comedy. There's the stalking bear that won't leave the hapless Tramp alone; there's Charlie dangling from the cabin as it too teeters on the edges of a cliff; there's Big Jim McKay, played by Mack Swain, hungrily imagining Chaplin to be a man-sized chicken, and Chaplin consequently donning a chicken suit strutting and flapping about; and then there are the two most famous dining scenes: In one, Charlie, after having cooked his shoe, twirls the laces as if they were spaghetti, then he delicately licks the nails of his shoes clean, as if they were bones. Later, there is the hilarious, if not totally original, dance of the rolls, a bit so popular that some exhibitors, at the request of the audience, would actually run the reel again just so they could see this sequence a second time.

In the film, The Tramp treks off to the Yukon to test his luck and stamina during the Klondike gold rush. His efforts are thwarted by harsh weather conditions and his life threatened by the burly and surly Big Jim, a perfect physical contrast to the meek Chaplin. In a neighboring town, The Tramp meets and falls for a dancehall girl, who does not (at first, of course) share his adoration. Eventually, he joins back up the Big Jim, who, due to amnesia, has forgotten where he had hidden away his riches. The Tramp and Big Jim finally retrieve the gold and, in the end, become wealthy men. All that’s left is for Charlie to get the girl…. 
The Gold Rush, one of Chaplin's rare productions planned with a fully developed script, would be the film he himself hoped to be most remembered for. It was successful enough upon its initial release, but Chaplin chose to re-release the picture in 1942, now with sound effects and a new musical score, which Chaplin helped to compose, and a narration, which was spoken by Chaplin. In what must be a singular instance, the re-release would actually be nominated for two Oscars for its sound work.

Chaplin’s life was chock full of fascinating personal stories and artistic endeavors, some not always successful. There was his troubled childhood, his miraculously successful start with Keystone and Essanay, his achievement of phenomenal global stardom, and his reluctance to make the transition to sound. And then there were his politics. Perhaps the saddest chapter in Chaplin’s story was when, in 1952, he was returning from England and his reentry permit was revoked by the FBI, a result of his supposed “un-American activities.” Eventually, all was seemingly forgiven and he was allowed to return to America in 1972 to accept an honorary Academy Award. He passed away five years later.

Today, Chaplin is one of the preeminent figures of motion picture history. He’s an icon for the movies themselves. It’s arguable that The Gold Rush is his finest achievement, and that’s saying something.

“The only genius to come out of the movie industry.” - George Bernard Shaw on Charlie Chaplin


Mean Streets & The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Following the Ingmar Bergman double feature previously discussed, for this entry we'll stick with another combination of two movies, but this time with the theme of New York City in the 1970s.

From 1969's Best Picture winning (and at the time X rated) Midnight Cowboy, through films like The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1979), and including movies of the so-called Blaxploitation cycle like Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972), the Big Apple was well represented in the 1970s, arguably one of the greatest decades for American cinema. And two films, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), starring Walter Matthau, are classic examples of the period's predilection for urban drama and depictions of unrefined authenticity.

The former, Scorsese's look at violence, religion, relationships, and redemption inside a group of the city's lower echelon hoods, and the latter, about a group of gunmen who hold a subway train and its passengers hostage, convey the best and worst of the city in the decade. There was the rough nature of the city streets, the grime and garbage, the insular, isolated melancholy of some of the inhabitants, and the vibe of the bustling conglomeration within the city's melting pot society. In addition, it being the 1970s, there was the distinctive clothing, the hair, the unique cars and language, the music, and the aesthetic of the cinematography, a gritty, unpolished realism that went as far away as possible from the Hollywood gloss of decades previous. There's no mistaking where and when these films were made.

Mean Streets, just Scorsese's third feature, after the student film Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1967) and the Roger Corman produced exploitation picture Boxcar Bertha (1972), not only heralded the emergence of one of America's best rising young filmmakers (this would be further certified with Taxi Driver three years later, itself another '70s New York essential), but it also brought further attention to two actors who would become among the world's greatest: Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. In the role of Charlie, Scorsese's autobiographical stand-in, Keitel plays a man torn between his ambition, his love for a girl he cares for but tends to feel ambivalent about, and his obligations to his dangerously erratic friend Johnny Boy, played with gusto by De Niro. Throw in Charlie's Catholicism and all the guilt and sense of moral responsibility that that entails, and you have a film of immense power. Then add to it Scorsese's penchant for sudden, realistic violence, rock and roll music in just the right style played at just the right moment, as well as his keen sense of cinematic technique, and you have a masterpiece.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, on the other hand, is not so much a personal work of auteurist art (its director, Joseph Sargent, would mostly stick with television movies from here on out, many, however, widely acclaimed), but it is a prefect example of a tension filled, wonderfully constructed, and extremely entertaining thriller. It's just another day for Lt. Zachary Garber of the New York City Transit Police, when suddenly he is forced to deal with a group of armed criminals who have taken control of a subway car and threaten its entire board of passengers. Garber, played with delightful cynicism and weariness by Matthau, contends with the bureaucracy of city management while doing his everyday, working man's best to negotiate with the hijackers, attempting to determine how they intend to reach their ultimate desired outcome. The film was recently remade with Denzel Washington and John Travolta, but this original is by far the superior picture. You can count among its biggest admirers Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed the color-coded nicknames of the villains in the film for his band of thieves in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Mean Streets will be released for the first time on Blu-ray July 17 and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three will air June 11 on Turner Classic Movies (set your DVRs though – it plays at 2 a.m. Arizona time). Taken together, these two New York City gems are shining examples of the type of superb movies made during the 1970s. They're imbued with a strong sense of naturalism and earnestness of emotion and character that was unique to this period of America cinema. The directness of their storytelling and the unadorned quality of the performances make them both touchstones of the era.