If ever there was an example of the truly intuitive, spiritual filmmaking - this is it. Pasolini's film is sheer poetry of the soul. (Pasolini in fact was a poet before he became a filmmaker, but that in no way guarantees poetic results in cinema). His is the artistry on a level other filmmakers can barely discern, much less approach. That is why in many quarters this film is called "amateur" and "sloppy". People can no longer appreciate the greatness of simplicity and the fact that true simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve in any art form. It is this very simplicity of the film that deceives many into thinking that there is nothing there, that it is just too primitive next to the buffed-and-polished style of today's cinema with its profuse and clever dialogue.
Pasolini, as a true auteur director, designed all the costumes and selected all the music for the film, making this a truly organic work that feels as though it came into existence already whole. His musical selections show a keen intuition at work. At first glance, the score appears eclectic (and it is), but what unites all these pieces is much more significant than the diversity of form that separates them: in each case (be it J.S. Bach, Mozart, Webern, Prokofiev, Russian folk song, an American Spiritual or a Congolese Mass) the voice of the spirit with its unquenchable longing comes through the music. Particularly astonishing is the choice of Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music for the first appearance of Christ as an adult - a choice so perfect as is only possible in a state of perfect connection with the Light. A better musical expression for the tragedy that Christ's life has turned into here could not have been found. And Pasolini brings it back again at the end for Christ's walk to Golgotha. Thus the funeral music frames Christ's life, marking His arrival and His departure.
Pasolini's artistic genius is in evidence everywhere, in every little touch. For instance: he makes the little boy Jesus carry a toy sword; he has the religious leaders wear enormous headpieces, which instantly communicate their conceit and their inordinate self-importance; he has two women playing Mary of Nazareth at different stages in her life, one in her youth and the other one played by his own mother; he has Satan, who tempts Christ in the desert, dressed as a Catholic priest. From the opening shot (which instantly takes your breath away), we know we are in the presence of something special: in complete silence (with only a bird chirping), we experience the painful confrontation between the already pregnant Mary and Joseph, whereby anxieties, doubts and hopes are expressed without either one of them uttering a single word.
Pasolini used only the non-actors in this film (and in most of his films). And his ability to "guess" a person's character through their facial characteristics is uncanny. It was his profound love for human beings that enabled him to do that, and this love is felt in every shot of the film: the way the camera glides lovingly over the faces of all the characters as well as all the landscapes (Pasolini did most of the camera work himself). When Christ goes to the seashore to gather His disciples: the way they stop and look up at Him, the way He looks at them and calls them by name - it is all love. (In other adaptations there is much talk about love, but none of it is conveyed cinematically). Pasolini felt this love and awe for everything that existed ("All is sacred, all is sacred!" - he used to say repeatedly) and this state of loving wonder connected him with a greater Love, thus enabling him to make the best film ever on the life of Christ.
Much is made of the apparent paradox that Pasolini (a self-professed atheist) would even undertake to make a film on Christ in the first place. What is overlooked here is that the outer designations (Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist) count for nothing before God. It is only the state of one's innermost being that is evaluated by the incorruptible Spiritual Laws, Which execute God's Will in Creation. Only the inner essence of a person, which usually remains hidden from human eyes (often hidden even from a person himself), determines his fate. Pasolini rejected the Christ offered to him by dogma, but deep within he carried a genuine longing (unspoken and unconfessed) for the real Christ. This is the only reason he was able to make a film so closely guided by the Light. Here is a revealing exchange between the reporters and Pasolini at a press conference in 1966:
Reporter: "Why do you deal with religious themes, you yourself being an unbeliever?"
Pasolini: "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."
At the time he started shooting, Pasolini said he was determined to make this film "from a believer's point of view". But by the time he finished the film, he had realized that "I have made it from my own point of view." His great longing made it possible, not the adherence to any religion.
One of the greatest moments in the history of cinema is the first appearance of Christ at the scene of His baptism. The expression on the non-actor's face (Enrique Irazoqui) is such as has eluded everyone else who tackled this role. How can one describe it in words? Simple yet unapproachable majesty, solemnity, unfathomable depth and that special combination of love and severity in the eyes - all to the music of Mozart for a Masonic Funeral. Breathless and speechless, we stare at this face - feeling uncannily face to face with Him, Who brings us salvation through His Message. Wearing a simple garment, He looks like a King not of this world. As he approaches John the Baptist and looks at him, unearthly Love emanates from His face. And when He kneels down for the baptism, uncovering His head and lifting His glorious face upwards, all present drop to their knees, forced down by a Higher Power pouring from Above. As they look upwards, the camera soars high above to reach the perspective of the Dove sent by God the Father with His Words: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." This whole scene achieves something quite miraculous in its effect. In classical music it is referred to as 'stillness in motion". For those who are sensitive to it, it is as though time stands still and conveys the presence of a Higher Power within the frames of the film. This is something that no other film on Christ has ever achieved (and very few non-Christ films have ever achieved). Pasolini's film carries the actual imprinture of the higher guidance right within the frames of the film itself. And Christ's upturned face against the background of the running water may just be the greatest image ever filmed.
Pasolini is the only filmmaker, who caught this state of longing on the part of Christ to be with His Father, to be immersed deeply in introspection, so that He can be completely in sink with His Mission. No other Christ lifts his face up to Heaven so often, showing from where He receives His Power. After He gathers His disciples, He begins instructing them. It is here that we notice something that we have previously only caught a glimpse of in Christ' eyes when He first appeared for the baptism, i.e. His severity as He looks upon mankind. This is a trait which Pasolini caught with unmistakable intuition and where all the other characterizations of Christ invariably fail. It has nothing to do with shouting (obviously one has to raise one's voice when addressing a crowd) - no, here Christ is severe with His own disciples, in his attitude towards mankind, "for the greater part of true love is severity!" (Abdruschin.)
The scene of the visitation by the three kings is astonishingly transcendent, with the American Spiritual floating above it: "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home." Many of us at times experience this strange longing for a Home, which is not of this world. We vaguely sense that our actual origin lies in a place far above the earth. But this great intuition is challenged by today's science and Darwin's theory. No amount of faith is able to deal with this challenge adequately. Only genuine Knowledge can put scientific discoveries into the right perspective.
One could talk for hours about the perfect, breathtaking compositions in each frame and their coordination with the music, which result in a special atmosphere of naturalness and sublimity at one and the same time. For Pasolini, one was inseparable from the other: what was natural was sublime and what was sublime had to be natural. But the most extraordinary quality of this film is the depth of the inner experiencing on the part of its director. All analysis is basically washed aside, because he convinces us of the great reality of what we are watching through the power of his own inner experiencing of it. Only very few films have that kind of inner experiencing to them, even amongst the great directors (we're talking about maybe one or two films in their entire career, except for Tarkovsky). The effect of this film is like a director is remembering something that he saw a long, long time ago. In this connection, it is important to realize that no one lives on earth only once. There is simply too much that we need to learn and experience in order to become fully-functioning members of Creation, and the span of one lifetime is just not sufficient for this. For further elaboration, read "Bible Accounts that Suggest Reincarnation" by Stephen Lampe.
Much has been made of the handheld camera technique that Pasolini employed in this film as being primarily responsible for conveying the documentary-like, "being there" feel of the film, but in reality it's never the technique. Countless films since then have used the same technique with nothing even remotely approaching the effect of Pasolini's film. It is the spirit behind the camera that emanates and leaves its imprinture on the film. All the techniques are nothing other than the more or less successful means to this end. It is the state of the spirit at the time of making the film that is captured within the frames of the film, not the intellectual rationalizations behind it. And during the making of this particular film Pasolini was very closely aligned with the guidance from the Light. (We personally doubt that even the great Tarkovsky could have made a better or even as good a film on Christ as Pasolini.)
It is not surprising then that this adaptation of the Gospel contains the least amount of distortions of Christ's life and Message. To begin with, all the human chatter is cut out of the film, so the only words we hear are either quotes from the Bible or Christ's own words as they have been recorded by His disciples to the best of their recollection. Secondly, all the miracles are depicted in a natural manner. Thirdly, Pasolini does not put words into Christ's mouth (like so many other adaptations), making Him say things He never said, but which later became part of the dogma, such as that He came to take the sins of the world upon His shoulders. In fact, this adaptation conveys quite powerfully that the crucifixion was a tragedy brought about by human failure, for no justifiable reason. After Christ is raised on the cross, the screen goes black, then the earth quakes - it all comes across as a hideous event, which was never part of God's plan. (Coincidentally, Pasolini's original intuition was to take the "saint" out of the title of the film. But later, for various reasons he decided to put it back in. Needless to say, his original intuition was correct.)
This is also the only film to clarify the role of Judas. When the woman anoints Christ's head with precious oil, Pasolini shows how Judas is irked by this incident. Judas' face expresses annoyance, doubt and almost disgust as he looks at Christ. It is clear that he no longer believes Him to be the Son of God. Seeing neither beauty nor poetry in a woman's gesture, he indignantly objects to the "waste" of the expensive ointment, which in his opinion, should have been put to a more practical use. When Christ rebukes him for his pedestrian practicality, Judas storms out of the gathering and heads straight for the Temple to betray Christ. That this betrayal was never part of the plan of salvation for mankind is proven by Christ's own words about Judas at the Last Supper: "Better for that man if he had never been born."
The incident with the woman served as the last straw for Judas, who has been having doubts about Christ's identity for some time. It is not really difficult for a modern man of today to understand the nature of Judas' doubts about Christ's Divinity (although few would go so far as to take revenge on the subject of their doubts and disappointments). Judas' failure came when he stopped looking for proof of Christ's identity in His Message, relying instead on miracles to supply him with that proof. Is this not the same mistake most of us continue to make today? Tremendous emphasis is placed on miraculous happenings, which often occurred quite spontaneously in the presence of God's Son, while His Teaching remains unheeded or largely misinterpreted and misunderstood whenever the effort is made to grasp It. Many believers fear that they would be disloyal to Christ, if they were to look for the rightful interpretation of His Message elsewhere. But they forget that Christ Himself had promised that Another would come after Him to "teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said onto you".
It is sad that in this masterpiece of a film, the common error is repeated again, namely Christ referring to Himself as the Son of Man. But there was nothing Pasolini could do about it, since the original error was transmitted by Christ's disciples right into the Gospels. Only when talking about "the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name" did Christ refer to the Son of Man. But the disciples thought that he was still talking about Himself and they merged the Two separate Personalities into One. This was not the only thing they had misunderstood, but it was by far the most major one, which had the most devastating repercussions up to the present day by preventing people from anticipating and recognizing the Son of Man. As long as faith continues to hinge on the erroneous belief that Christ brought salvation through His crucifixion, no secure ground can be found under the believers' feet. The proof of Divine Origin lies solely in the content and comprehensiveness of the Message brought down from Above. And every human being with an objective mind and a lively intuition is in a position to verify it for himself.
Pasolini's "Gospel..." is ranked No.1 on our Cinemaseekers' Honor Roll.