"Jesus and the Gospels" was the one religion course in college that disappointed me. In retrospect, I think our professor thought we were a bit beneath her, but that's neither here nor there. Yet in spite of the letdown, I keep discovering useful nuggets from that class well over a decade later.
One day while discussing the Sermon on the Mount, our professor showed a scene from a 1964 Italian film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew). In stark black and white, the camera held close to the face of the actor portraying Jesus. He did not have movie star looks. He was plain looking and a near unibrow stretched over his eyes. From the subtitles we could read that he was preaching the Sermon on the Mount but the camera kept changing the location of his message: a bright afternoon in the hills, a dusty plain, a driving rain storm. This sermon was not something he just said once and was done. It was the crux of what he preached. It was a relatively short clip, but it has held on to me for all of these years.
Home sick today, I discovered an edited, colorized, English dubbed version of The Gospel of St. Matthew on Hulu. The film is minimalistic and sometimes slow. Those of us who were born in the post-blockbuster era have difficulty with the more leisurely paced films of yesteryear. Yet it was still arresting.
The dialogue was all lifted from the text. It was filmed in a hilly countryside and with non-professional actors. Jesus, I later read, was portrayed by a 19 year old Econ student from Spain. In film, the word biblical is nearly always succeeded by epic, yet this film felt small and modest. You know that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which they're trying to pick out which cup is the Holy Grail? The bad guy Nazi selects a gaudy gold goblet. He chose poorly. Indy chooses the true Grail: the unassuming cup of the carpenter. I feel like this black and white Italian movie is that plain cup. Not that I'm saying that you will turn into a terrifying skeleton if you watch a flashier Jesus movie, but you get the idea.
What is perhaps most interesting to me is that this film is not the work of some pious believer. The director Pier Paolo Pasolini was well-known as a Marxist, homosexual, and an atheist. Now the first two do not preclude someone from being a Christian, but the last item certainly does. The point is this is not the kind of guy one would expect to produce a movie that the Vatican declared to be the best film about Jesus ever made. People were stunned. When the film premiered at a film festival, the crowd booed the director. I imagine it was like when people turned on Dylan for going electric. Yet after the film had been screened, the crowd cheered him and it won a Special Jury Prize.
I find myself wondering how someone who did not believe in the material turned out a film that was celebrated by those both inside and outside the church. Initially, I thought it was because he set out to tell the story with no agenda. He did not adapt or change the story to hammer home a specific point. He simply let the story tell itself. Yet I think that theory is a bit naive. The director still had an agenda: he wanted to make a great film. And there is an agenda present in the text itself. The gospels were written and edited to be persuasive documents. Even they were not written to tell the story just as it is.
I do think that there is a humility in how Pasolini presents the story. He stated that he did not seek to reconstruct a historical Jesus or do a Marxist reconstruction of the time period. In the book Pier Paolo Pasolini: Retrato de in Intelectual, he was quoted saying:
"I did not want to recontruct the life of Christ as it really was, I wanted to make the history of Christ two thousand years of Christian version on, since it is the two thousand years of Christian history that have mythologized this biography, one that as such would have been virtually insignificant otherwise. My film is the life of Christ after two thousand years of stories on the life of Christ."
We could do a lot of unpacking with that statement concerning the historical Jesus, the idea of myth (which does not mean "untrue" as many often think), and other concepts. But the thing that stands out to me is this idea of "This is the story that we have and it is important for a litany of reasons to the sacred and secular alike. Here it is to the best that I can do."
When the story of Jesus is presented in that context--removed from threats of damnation for disbelief on one extreme and smirking "Look at this fairy tale" disdain on the other--it loses much of its baggage. More so it is allowed to retain its inherent power, a power that speaks to people that hold a myriad of beliefs. Hopefully some will dig deeper into following Jesus. At the very least, his message can challenge. I think that can only be a good thing.
As Christians, we do not solely possess the story of Jesus. Our job is not to protect it for fear of someone else getting their hands on it. We simply must tell it well. The story of Jesus is a gift to all humanity. And sometimes we need atheist Italian filmmakers to remind us of that reality.