The Gospel According to St. Matthew (film)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo) is a 1964 Italian film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. It is a cinematic rendition of the story of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Saint Matthew, from the Nativity through the Resurrection. In 2015, the Vatican City newspaper L'Osservatore Romano called it the best film on Christ ever made.

The dialogue is primarily taken directly from the Gospel, as Pasolini felt that "images could never reach the poetic heights of the text." He reportedly chose the Gospel of Matthew over the others because he had decided that "John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental."



According to Barth David Schwartz’s book Pasolini Requiem (1992), the impetus for the film took place in 1962. Pasolini had accepted Pope John XXIII’s invitation for a new dialogue with non-Catholic artists, and subsequently visited the town of Assisi to attend a seminar at a Franciscan monastery there. The papal visit caused traffic jams in the town, leaving Pasolini confined to his hotel room; there, he came across a copy of the New Testament. Pasolini read all four Gospels straight through, and he claimed that adapting a film from one of them "threw in the shade all the other ideas for work I had in my head." Unlike previous cinematic depictions of Jesus' life, Pasolini's film does not embellish the biblical account with any literary or dramatic inventions, nor does it present an amalgam of the four Gospels (subsequent films which would adhere as closely as possible to one Gospel account are 1979's Jesus, based on the Gospel of Luke, and 2003's The Gospel of John).

Given Pasolini's well-known reputation as an atheist, a homosexual, and a Marxist, the reverential nature of his film was surprising (especially as Pasolini had previously been sentenced to jail for the allegedly blasphemous and obscene content of his contribution to the 1963 anthology film RoGoPaG, although the sentence was suspended). At a press conference in 1966, Pasolini was asked why he, an unbeliever, had made a film which dealt with religious themes; his response was, "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." The film begins with an announcement that it is "dedicato alla cara, lieta, familiare memoria di Giovanni XXIII" ("dedicated to the dear, joyous, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII"), as John XXIII was indirectly responsible for the film's creation, but had died before its completion.


Pasolini employed some of the techniques of Italian neorealism in the making of his film. Most of the actors he hired were amateurs: Enrique Irazoqui (Jesus) was a 19-year-old economics student from Spain, and the rest of the cast were mainly locals from Barile, Matera and Massafra, where the film was shot (Pasolini visited the Holy Land but found the locations unsuitable and "commercialized"). Pasolini cast his own mother, Susanna, as the elderly mother of Jesus. The cast also included noted intellectuals such as writers Enzo Siciliano and Alfonso Gatto, poets Natalia Ginzburg and Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, and philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

The score of the film is eclectic, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach (e.g. Mass in B Minor and St Matthew Passion) to Odetta ("Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child") and the "Gloria" from the Congolese Missa Luba. 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 has been likened to Byzantine art as well as the work of Expressionist artist Georges Rouault).


Several of the actors had their voices dubbed by different actors, sans credit: Enrico Maria Salerno voiced Jesus (played by Enrique Irazoqui), Gianni Bonagura voiced Joseph (played by Marcello Morante), and Pino Locchi voiced John the Baptist (played by Mario Socrate). Uncredited actors in the film include Ninetto Davoli, who plays a shepherd, and Umberto Bevilacqua, who plays a soldier.


The film was widely touted in Italy, and proved to be one of Pasolini's most popular, both with critics and the public. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times gave the film a rave review upon its American release in 1966:

Ever since the Venice Film Festival in 1964, we'd been hearing exciting information about Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which, according to the reports, was a strikingly unusual picturing of the story of Jesus, done with a cast of nonprofessionals on locations in southern Italy and directed by a man who was an acknowledged Marxist and atheist. The prospect of it was fascinating. What sort of film could it be? What sort of interpretation of Jesus and the disciples would it present? What contrasts with the all-too-familiar type of Hollywood Biblical film would it afford? The answers are here now...[The film] turns out to be more exciting than even the first flash reports on it were and more rewarding in its surge of human drama and spiritual power than one had hoped it might be. For this time the story of Jesus is told in the simple and naturalistic terms of a plain, humble man of the people conducting a spiritual salvation campaign in an environment and among a population that are rough, unadorned and real. The Jesus we see is no transcendent evangelist in shining white robes, performing his ministrations and miracles in awesome spectacles. He is a young man of spare appearance, garbed in dingy, homespun cloaks, moving with quiet resolution across a rugged and dusty countryside, gathering his tough-faced disciples from toilers he meets along the way and preaching his words of exhortation to crowds of simple, sullen peasants and sprawling children. His words are the straight words of the Gospel, spoken in flinty, barren scenes wherein the camera of Mr. Pasolini ranges from the speaker's fervent face to the rude, open faces of listeners to their spare stone houses beyond. The viewer, taking in these freighted gatherings, has the mystical sense of being there.

In his book Guide for the Film Fanatic (1986), Danny Peary described Pasolini’s film as a "surprisingly straightforward and modern telling of the Christ story," in comparison to the "grandiose treatment" the story received in films like The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings:

Watching Jesus wander the deserts, meeting the poor and delivering defiant speeches (with one famous Christ quote after another), there is a strange feeling of authenticity, as if somehow news cameras were on the scene. In fact, the film is shot in such a manner that one is reminded of sixties documentaries chronicling campaigns of politicians or, better, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as he traveled the South on his revolutionary course. It’s hard to gauge Pasolini’s feelings about Christ, who at first seems concerned only with getting people to worship him...but in time (a year after John’s beheading) shows signs of compassion and a willingness to help, even sacrifice himself for, mankind. To Marxist Pasolini, Christ is a revolutionary who unites the masses and becomes a martyr to the cause, defying those in church and state, and forcing these hypocrites to reveal their true natures.

Leonard Maltin described the film as "unconventional and austere," noting that the "amateur cast is expressive and moves with quiet dignity," and that "ironically, [the] director of this masterpiece was a Marxist."

Roger Ebert reviewed the film in 2004 as part of his Great Movies series:

Pasolini's is one of the most effective films on a religious theme I have ever seen, perhaps because it was made by a nonbeliever who did not preach, glorify, underline, sentimentalize or romanticize his famous story, but tried his best to simply record it...[Jesus’] presence and appearance are unusual in terms of traditional depictions. Like most of Jewish men of his time, he wears his hair short -- none of the flowing locks of holy cards. He wears a dark, hooded robe so that his face is often in shadow. He is unshaven but not bearded. His personal style is sometimes gentle, as during the Sermon on the Mount, but more often he speaks with a righteous anger, like a union organizer or a war protester. His debating style, true to Matthew, is to answer a question with a question, a parable, or dismissive scorn. His words are clearly a radical rebuke of his society, its materialism, and the way it values the rich and powerful over the weak and poor.

Martin Scorsese, while discussing his own Jesus film, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), has cited Pasolini's film as an influence:

The biblical film that made the biggest impact on me, when I was at film school, was Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew...Up to that point, I had an idea to do a film on Jesus, in cinema-vérité style, in the Lower East Side of New York with everyone wearing suits, a modern-day interpretation of the story we know. So I was moved and crushed at the same time by the Pasolini film because in a sense it was what I wanted to do. Jesus was played by a Spanish law student, and it was shot in the south of Italy...Pasolini’s use of faces was marvelous. It reminds me of Renaissance art even though it’s in black and white, and I love the music – the Missa Luba and Bach. Just compare his Christ with Jeffrey Hunter. He doesn’t act walking, he is walking; it’s not self-conscious and yet it’s very determined...I like [Pasolini]’s Christ as a kind of conspirator. It was a revolutionary Jesus. In fact, at the time, people referred to him as a Marxist Christ. The strength of Matthew’s language comes out very clearly, and it’s purer because it doesn’t try to make it a straight story from beginning to end. There are no transitions between scenes, characters come and disappear, they reappear in no dramatic way. Yet the key to the whole picture is Jesus – how forceful He is and how He carries through. 'Do not think I have come to bring peace on this earth. I have come to bring a sword...He who loves his father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me.' This is not the stuff you usually hear on Sunday morning in church! He’s a very strong Christ, you’re either with him or against him, and some of the sermons do give you the sense of being yelled at and beaten down.

Scorsese at one point considered shooting The Last Temptation of Christ on the same Southern Italian locations used by Pasolini for The Gospel According to St. Matthew, before eventually deciding on Morocco. Mel Gibson later filmed The Passion of the Christ (2004) on the same locations used by Pasolini.

On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 92% certified "fresh" rating.


At the 1964 Venice Film Festival, The Gospel According to St. Matthew was nominated for 3 awards, including the Golden Lion, and won 2, the OCIC Award and the Special Jury Prize.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew was released in the United States in 1966 and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Art Direction (Luigi Scaccianoce), Costume Design (Danilo Donati), and Score.

Alternate versions

The 2007 Region 1 DVD release from Legend Films features a colorized, English-dubbed version of the film, in addition to the original, black and white Italian-language version (the English-dubbed version is significantly shorter than the original, with a running time of 91 minutes - roughly 40 minutes shorter than the standard version).


  • Bart Testa, "To Film a Gospel ... and Advent of the Theoretical Stranger," in Patrick Rumble and Bart Testa (eds.), Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives. University of Toronto Press, Inc., 1994, pp. 180–209. ISBN 0-8020-7737-4.
  • "Pasolini, Il Cristo dell'Eresia (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo). Sacro e censura nel cinema di Pier Paolo Pasolini (Edizioni Joker, 2009) by Erminia Passannanti, ISBN-13: 978-88-7536-252-2

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