Archive for category: Blu-ray & DVD

Blu-ray diary: A Man Escaped

30 Dec
December 30, 2013

A Man EscapedAs a result of my recent, intense encounter with the films of Roberto Rossellini, I’m thinking a lot lately about the possibilities entailed in breaking style conventions not simply for innovation’s sake but in the name of moving past the limits of style itself. Such formal attempts to get at something more substantial than “mere” form, seem to be, perhaps inevitably so, inseparable from spirituality itself. In other words, I seem to have found the right moment to start exploring the films of Robert Bresson.

As  the blurb for Paul Schrader’s noted book puts it: “Unlike the style of psychological realism, which dominates film, the transcendental style expresses a spiritual state with austere camerawork, acting devoid of self-consciousness, and editing that avoids editorial comment.”

My first and only previous Bresson viewing experience was a small-screen (CRT I think) viewing of Au Hasard Balthazar some seven or eight years ago. It was an emotional bombshell of a film but I don’t remember doing much thinking about how it achieved its effect, other than the obvious scrupulous/rigorous follow-through entailed in taking an animal’s point of view through an entire feature film narrative arc. I probably couldn’t have told you anything very specific about how Bresson accomplished what he did.

Having now watched through the various special features on the Criterion release of A Man Escaped (detailed in this review) I feel I have a much better grasp of Bresson’s methodology and vision. So let me here put in a plug for The Essence of Forms, a 2010 doc (46 min.) that appeared originally on the Gaumont French Blu-ray release of the film and offers a series of insights into Bresson’s filmmaking approach, from collaborators and critics. Unlike the other docs about him included here, it includes only clips from A Man Escaped even though it considers his whole career—so it is both fascinating and free of spoilers for his other films.  With the other, older docs included I found myself fast-forwarding through some clips from other films that I haven’t yet seen. So if you are going to pick just one of the special features to watch after a first viewing of this film I recommend this one.

Criterion issued their meticulously-restored edition of A Man Escaped back in March, so I am about 9 months late to this party—the first Bresson film to be released in high-def video.  Region B releases of Au hazard Balthazar and Mouchette from Artificial Eye were originally due early this year but have been repeatedly delayed and are now due to drop in March 2014. Can’t wait.

DVD diary: Rossellini’s War Trilogy—completing the cycle

14 Dec
December 14, 2013

Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy - Criterion CollectionMy fall 2013 encounter with Rossellini has transpired in a strange order… after seeing the restored Rome: Open City at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I had intended to dive into Criterion’s 3-DVD box of the War Trilogy in the ensuing weeks. But then when I scored the 4-BD Rossellini-Bergman box I excitedly jumped immediately to that.  I have a sort of mild regret about that because the supplements I watched (and certain aspects of Europe ’51) rather spoiled the ending of Germany Year Zero for me. Possibly the most useful piece of advice I can offer people coming to these two boxes / six films for the first time is: watch them in order, and for useful explication watch the Rossellini introductions and Adriano Aprà interviews after each film—and save the supplements that consider the entire trilogies for after you’ve watched each full trio of films.

The only other Rossellini regret that I have at this moment is that it’s taken me this long to get around to watching the War Trilogy films—and this Criterion box in particular, which was released just about four years ago now.  As with the Rossellini-Bergman package the supplements are brilliant—thoughtfully produced and abundantly insightful. Especially valuable are two video essays: Rossellini and the City, by Mark Shiel, about the urban landscapes in the trilogy, and Into the Future, by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, which is essentially a concise half-hour lecture, with quickly edited visuals, that is guaranteed to elevate your appreciation of all three films. As with the Rossellini-Bergman box I have found myself compulsively watching every minute of the extras.

If recent and future further restoration of these classic films does indeed result in new high def upgrade releases for these films, it’s hard to think that the accompanying features can also be improved.  One of Criterion’s best releases ever, for me, and that is saying something. For the dedicated cinephile this is pure gold.


Blu-ray diary: Il Generale Della Rovere

09 Dec
December 9, 2013

Il Generale Della Rovere - Blu-rayIn case it wasn’t obvious from my last post, I seem to have a new addiction and it’s the films of Roberto Rossellini.  At the moment the more formalist auteurs seem like weaksauce to me compared to the way that Rossellini challenges and reconsiders formal considerations at every step of his filmic development, or so it seems to me now that I’m about six films into his filmography.  But what’s interesting to me about Il Generale Della Rovere, which was released for the first time on Blu-ray just last week (in a fine package by Raro Video), is that it seems as likely to be misunderstood now as it seemingly was on first release in 1959.

A condition laid down by the film’s producer was that it should be ready for the Venice Film Festival in the fall of that year. This led to the film being shot in studio—Cinecittà in Rome, as it happened (on the legendary soundstage Teatro 5, where Fellini made several of his films). Rossellini, starting with Rome: Open City in 1945, had been associated more than any previous filmmaker with the use of location shooting to bring a feel of verité to his films. For Il Generale he decided to embrace the artificiality of the studio environment and, in fact, play it up.  His approach seems, however, to have been too subtle for reviewers at the time, who wrote of his “return to realism” in response to this film.  His deliberately contrasting of newsreel footage and studio shots with (obvious to later viewers) painted and matted-in backdrops seems to have not had the intended effect.

I tend to think that today’s viewers might watch this film and see those abrupt shifts as poor workmanship rather than deliberate aesthetic.  We have had so many subsequent generations of filmmakers that have embraced conscious artificiality and refined it in various ways such that what was once a bold cinematic experiment might play more like a clumsy misfire. But understood in context it is another fascinating chapter in Rossellini’s development.

I continue to find compelling the complex edition history of Rossellini’s films, and this package offers another chance to explore that aspect of his filmography.  The disc contains both the director’s cut that was presented at Venice 1959 and the later theatrical release that was edited in various ways. Once again it is worthwhile viewing both versions as well as the visual essay by leading Rossellini interpreter Adriano Aprà that meticulously glosses the various changes. To summarize: most of the nips and tucks of the theatrical version constitute indisputable narrative improvements, but one of the most significant cuts in that version is baffling unless you’ve seen the director’s cut.  For this reason that earlier festival version is the default version presented from the main menu of the disc. The theatrical version is available in the bonus-feature submenu.

One more note: Raro have decided to present this in an archival framing—exposing the rounded corners of all of the exposed filmic image,  rather than matted/cropped presentation that filmgoers would normally see (and which we most often see in video transfers). I’m fine with this presentation—considered in’s detailed review—but others may find it a bit strange. Otherwise, Raro Video clearly have been influenced by Criterion in their production of the special features on the disc as well as the accompanying booklet (with excellent Aprà essay)—the resulting package is not quite as slick as the current Criterion standard, but more than worthwhile nonetheless.  We’re indeed lucky that 2013 has seen not one but two excellent Rossellini high def releases.

Blu-ray diary: Criterion’s Rossellini+Bergman package might be the best box set of 2013

23 Nov
November 23, 2013

Criterion Rossellini Bergman box coverA ball started rolling for me when I saw that restored print of Rome, Open City at TIFF in September. It was the first Rossellini film that I’d ever seen and I found it simply devastating —a much more harrowing, yet illuminating, emotional experience than I’d expected.  In October, on the strength of that film alone, when Criterion had a brief 50% off sale, I decided to blind-order the 4-disc Blu-ray set 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman. I started with Stromboli (the English-language version), which I found to be a raw emotional experience in a much different sense, and I didn’t really know, at first viewing, what to make of the abrupt turn to God in the closing sequence. But then I started to watch Europe ’51, and that was went I fell off some kind of cinematic cliff. The film immediately turned me into an Rossellini obsessive.

Both of these films come in this set in alternate English-language and Italian-language versions. As the English-language versions are in better visual condition, and seem to be generally preferred, I started off watching the English cut of Europe ’51. But I quit that cut an hour in, impatient with the way that English dialects and accents were matched to various characters (British accent for the intellectual journalist, Brooklyn for the peasant mother of 6 children). I started watching the Italian version from the beginning and quickly realized the profound changes that had been made. “Are you a communist?” had become, in the English version for the US market, “are you a member of a political party?” The public, social schism in post-war Italian society between West and East, Catholicism and Communism, had been censored nearly out of visibility in the film.

There is a fantastic 37-minute interview with film historian Elena Dagrada on this disc, that explicates very well the changes that were made, and the reasons for them (as well as a written piece by her in the accompanying booklet that talks about the changes between versions of Stromboli). I watched this, but not before going back to watch the rest of the English language version after completing my viewing of the Italian version. Though in the case of Stromboli I will readily concede the superiority of the English version, I think I find myself against the grain of common opinion on Europe ’51—I greatly prefer the Italian version.

Other highlights of the special features:

  • The interviews with film critic Adriano Aprà about all three films. Aprà has clearly thought deeply about all of these films and he opens up multiple meanings and significances to a first-time viewer.
  • Surprised by Death, “a new visual essay by film critic James Quandt on the historical and artistic themes of the trilogy”—first-time viewers of the films will be impressed by the many differences between the three films of this retrospectively-classified trilogy, but Quandt’s striking insights consist in all of the commonalities that he finds between the films.
  • Living and Departed, “a new visual essay by Rossellini scholar Tag Gallagher on the evolution of the director’s style in the trilogy”—excellent on the themes of estrangement and communication (but don’t watch it if you don’t want to spoil Rossellini’s earlier Germany Year Zero).
  • The interview with Martin Scorsese, very interesting on the spiritual aspects of the films.
  • Possibly my favourite—a fantastic interview with daughters Ingrid and Isabella Rossellini; informative, insightful, touching.

At this point I have now watched all five film cuts (the English and Italian versions of Stromboli and Europe ’51, as well as the English language Journey to Italy), as well as the film scholar Laura Mulvey’s commentary on Journey to Italy. So I have watched each film twice as well as the roughly seven hours of special features, for a total of 17 hours of viewing. I don’t regret a minute of that time spent.

I think I was somehow aware of the deep influence of these films on subsequent films and directors—especially Antonioni and Godard. But now this incredibly important point in film history has been crystallized and explicated for me. My film horizons have been expanded—Criterion has bottled lightning with this release.

Blu-ray diary: A baffling first viewing (Pasolini 8: Medea)

19 Oct
October 19, 2013

medea-coverOn my first attempted viewing of this film, I was reminded of a choice Lem Dobbs line delivered with laconic perfection by Bill Duke in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey.

Maybe I went into this one feeling a little too cocky, feeling like I’ve seen enough Pasolini now that I fundamentally get him and can figure out what he’s doing, no matter how difficult the film. If I was seriously thinking that, well, that was a silly thought.

But I’m pretty sure that the reason I had trouble with this one was not really a matter of a radical shift in Pasolini’s approach. Instead, it had everything to do with the source text, and my complete lack of familiarity with it.

This is the kind of literary adaptation that is quite simply not made anymore—the kind that assumes that any audience interested in viewing a film of this story is going to be already familiar. In fact, Medea assumes even further that viewers are so familiar that the film can jump right into a kind of theorizing about the cultural meaning of the story, and dwell there for a good 45 minutes without even really starting to unspool the events of its most famous version—the play by Euripides.

So, I did what any self-respecting, not easily defeated, Pasolini devotee in training would do. I went and read a translation of the Euripides play, and then I watched the film a second time.

Unsurprisingly, the film was much more comprehensible on second viewing, and I can even say that I admired it—but I did find it to be his weakest film so far. Stylistically and methodologically it does feel like he is beginning to repeat himself here—not doing a lot that Oedipus Rex, for example, didn’t do better.

I will say that I totally get Pasolini’s casting of Maria Callas. She brings just the right authenticity and presence for the title character. Also, points to the BFI for a beautiful representation of the film on Region 2 BD. It’s a real shame that there isn’t a high def release of this film for the North American market.

My new go-forward plan—seeing as the next 3 of Pasolini’s films, his Trilogy of Life, are all adaptations—is to do advance reading before watching the films. I’d rather enjoy the films as they were intended to be seen—visualizations and interpretations of familiar narratives—than to make awkward attempts to appreciate the films while lacking necessary context and preparation.

DVD diary: Pigsty, or, a bourgeoisporkalypse (Pasolini 7: Porcile)

03 Mar
March 3, 2013

The explicit political content of the film has as its object, as its historical situation, Germany. But the film does not speak of Germany; rather, of the ambiguous relationship between old and new capitalism. Germany was chosen as the extreme instance.

The implicit political content of the film is a desperate mistrust of all historical societies. Thus, an apocalyptic anarchy.

from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Note on Porcile

Pigsty/Porcile DVD Masters of Cinema“There really don’t seem to be any minor works in his oeuvre,” or so I blogged about Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows, but while 1969’s Pigsty offers no letup in intellectual intensity from his previous films, I have to say that this was the first of the seven Pasolini features that I have watched where many of the film’s elements begin to feel a bit—recycled.  It was also the last of Pasolini’s films not to be based on a major work of literature, which does make one wonder whether Pasolini felt like his own creative stores had been somewhat exhausted—along with the decade of the 1960s itself.

Yes it covers both cannibalism (shown, briefly), and sex with pigs (not shown), so it certainly does up the ante in terms of testing what an audience is ready to tolerate.  But it also brings back from Theorem:

  • the barren surface of Mt Etna as a visual metaphor for the existential plane,
  • the bourgeois household reduced to essence (reduced in this case to caricature), and
  • a young lover in a catatonic/comatose state (also repeating Mamma Roma‘s referencing of Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ).

The culturally-unplaceable “exotic” music of Oedipus Rex also makes a brief return here, fulfilling its former function of marking its society as somehow out of time, and the trial scene from The Gospel According to Matthew is back as well, again in a more bleakly satiric key.

The contemporary viewer needs to be prepared for some pretty oblique dialogue and referencing of the sociopolitical scene as Pasolini saw it at the time.  His use of satiric references to Nazism still comes across pretty clearly.  But the film is not about Nazism in the first instance, as Pasolini said.

I have come to realize in the course of watching these first seven films of Pasolini’s that 1) each of these films has at least one Christ figure and 2) you can always safely assume that the Christ figures are the characters that Pasolini identifies with. Pigsty has two Christ figures and Pasolini freely confessed that he identified with both. Drawn your own conclusions.

Not that it’s terribly crucial to appreciating this film, but I have to say it: Anne Wiazemsky looks unbelievably stylish in every one of her scenes—and in fact almost weirdly contemporary to my eye in 2013. If I had the time to rip this DVD and pick a bunch of screen caps I could assemble a pretty impressive fashion slide show.  The costume design is by Danilo Donati, who in addition to several of Pasolini’s films worked on others by Fellini and Zeffirelli. His last major project was Life is Beautiful.

DVD diary: Theorem, or, the Discreet Collapse of the Bourgeoisie (Pasolini 6: Teorema)

12 Feb
February 12, 2013

Theorem/TeoremaIt had been about seven years since the first and last time that I saw Pasolini’s Teorema. It seemed a bolt from the blue; my only previous exposure to Pasolini had been The Gospel According to Matthew, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I think about how brilliant it seemed, and how some of the images from it have stayed with me ever since, it’s kind of remarkable that it’s taken me this long to get around to my current project of watching all of his films in order.

Screening it now, in sequence after his first five fiction features, I do a see some richness of reference to his previous work (especially Gospel and Oedipus Rex), and having that additional context does illuminate his approach to some extent, but even after all that the shock of its brilliance remains.  In his critical commentary on the BFI DVD, Robert Gordon calls this film a “high water mark of auteurist cinema” and that is precisely what it is to me.

Really great works of art teach you how to appreciate them, don’t they, and there is something of that quality to Teorema. This film essentially breaks the three-act rule to deliver its coldly passionate theorem; if A, then B. This two-part, bilaterally symmetrical structure prevents us from expecting the kind of resolution that a conventionally plot-driven film would inevitably deliver.

Something I really enjoy about both Antonioni and Pasolini is the way that both directors use the presence of particular books to tell us things about the characters (unlike Godard, perhaps, who likes even his choices for book cameos to be opaque/cryptic).  In Teorema we don’t need to know much about Rimbaud, or the art of Francis Bacon, but a little bit of acquaintance does help.  The only literary-referencing scene that is really difficult to understand without knowledge of the source material is a scene where a physical interaction recalls a similar action from Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, so here I confess, not having read the Tolstoy, I was dependent on the explanation on the commentary track. By and large, though, the film’s points of reference add context but don’t demand to be completely understood on first viewing. Pasolini deploys minimal dialog here and for the most part lets the images communicate. It is his most purely visual cinema yet.

The 2007 DVD of this film (which I screened for this viewing) was already a huge upgrade from previous DVDs, but I am very much looking forward to the forthcoming BFI Blu-ray edition, which at time of writing is slated for release on May 13, 2013. If Masters of Cinema’s Oedipus Rex is anything to go by I know that this film can look even better. I will be double-dipping I expect.

Blu-ray diary: Oedipal, but not so complex (Pasolini 5: Edipo re)

10 Feb
February 10, 2013

So it seems that cinema must be naturalistic…

I want to stress the fact that now, at forty-five years of age, I have emerged from the wilderness of Freudian and Marxist dogma. But where have I got to?

Pier Paolo Pasolini, while filming Oedipus Rex

Oedipus RexColour! After experiencing six black & white Pasolini films in a row (four fiction features as well as two documentaries), colour comes as a revelation. Like Antonioni, with his first colour film Red Desert three years earlier,  Pasolini deploys colour masterfully in his first use, albeit with less overt symbolism than Antonioni. In Oedipus Rex Pasolini seems more interested in the way that it can create mood, tone, context.

It’s worth mentioning how excellently the colour is conveyed by the recent Masters of Cinema Blu-ray edition. I feel lucky to be having my first experiences of most of these films in such high quality versions.  It makes a big difference.

For a film about the Oedipal myth, with all of the Freudian baggage that might entail, Pasolini has created a remarkably unschematic, flowing narrative, at least when compared to his earlier films. Perhaps it helps to know the Sophocles play, but the narrative logic is pretty clear, I think, whether or not you’re familiar.

The opening scenes depicting the birth of Oedipus as a child in pre-way Italy are brilliant, and perhaps helped inspire a similar sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

But for me the most masterful sequence is the patricide/regicide of Laius, which Pasolini rightly makes the centrepiece of the film. He finds a way to stretch the scene out, without it ever feeling stretched, and to make it visceral rather than grandiose. It won’t seem “naturalistic” to those over/exposed to the “realistic” and/or cartoonish excesses of today’s violent films, but it is, relative to his previous films. And it demonstrates that Pasolini could, indeed, do suspense.

I’m inclined to think that not just The Gospel According to Matthew, but also this film, left a lasting impression on Martin Scorsese and led him to film The Last Temptation of Christ around ruined/ancient structures, rather than constructing elaborate sets. I have to say that I’ve found this choice a bit distracting in all of these films. Filming in and around crumbling ancient edifices makes the settings “feel” old I suppose, but of course in the ancient time that these films were set, some of the buildings around them would have been new. Pasolini perhaps sensed this possible criticism and claimed that he was setting Oedipus Rex “outside of time,” and indeed he found ways to make the ancient-time portion of the movie (most of it) cultural neutral or at least hybrid.

It has to be said that Pasolini is so unflinching about the mother-love aspect of the myth/story that it seems nowhere near as horrifying as the patricide sequence. Silvana Mangano’s Jocasta handles everything with such equanimity (and is not shown mourning the death of her husband Laius) that her end comes rather abruptly.

One more thought about the problems of depicting myths naturalistically. The age of CGI has inflated audience expectations about what can be depicted visually, and has inflated narrative itself along with it. All of that externalization, rendering-as-surface, may work against the original function of such stories, becoming merely a distraction from the reality of the gods and monsters within. As Pasolini’s carnivalesque sphinx says to Oedipus before it is slain, “The abyss you thrust me into is inside of you.”

DVD diary: The little birds—and bad birds—of Pasolini (Pasolini 4: Uccellacci e uccellini)

09 Feb
February 9, 2013

I agree it is not very funny. It makes you think more than laugh. But when it was put on in Montreal and New York the audiences laughed a lot, to my great astonishment, unlike in Italy, where they were a bit disappointed… Pier Paolo Pasolini interviewed in 1969

Hawks and SparrowsOne thing I seem to be discovering on this film-by-film chronological tour through Pasolini’s films is that there really don’t seem to be any minor works in his oeuvre.  Certainly his debut Accatone has some of the limitations that one associates with a first film, but even a film like 1966’s The Hawks and the Sparrows (Uccellacci e uccellini), that opens with a series of gestures that seem wacky and flippant by turns, turns out to be Pasolini’s most accomplished and confident effort yet, and a serious (yet comic) examination of ideology as well—thought not too serious, as Pasquale Iannone says.

Masters of Cinema’s DVD (locked to Region 2) was released last year, and while I’m a tad disappointed that this film was considered too minor to receive the full Blu-ray treatment (or for that matter, any extras other than a trailer), it must be said that this is a really excellent transfer—pretty much the best anamorphic standard-def representation you could hope for. Iannone’s essay in the included booklet provides some useful context to a first-time viewer like myself. (MoC have more literally rendered the Italian title in English by dropping the definite articles, titling the film Hawks and Sparrows.)

The main title sequence, in a straight-up wacky move, is sung by singer-songwriter Domenico Modugno, and Pasolini follows that up with a series of call-backs  to Gospel According to Matthew, starting with recasting the previous film’s annunciating angel, Rossana Di Rocco, as a teen angel of a different sort (wearing wings, unlike in Gospel, because, as she explains, she’s in a play at school).

Soon Pasolini will fling us into a 13th-century story-within-the-story, in which he will shoot and frame the pronouncements of St. Francis of Assisi in exactly the same way that he did Jesus in Gospel. Our two protagonists, Totò and Ninetto Davoli as father and son (surnamed “Innocenti”) pop  up as medieval monks complete with suitable names. When the local villagers adopt Totò’s “Frate Cicillo” as their new favourite saint, a full-on festival breaks out complete with an amateur comic play, at which point we have a play within a play within the play, which disintegrates at the moment when Pasolini unleashes a mock cleansing of the temple, in his final reference to his Jesus movie.  But somehow Pasolini is so masterful that even his excesses don’t seem excessive.

For Pasolini the end of ideology is not just a moment for postmodern celebration, but entails a tragic side, most evident when he makes use of footage from the actual funeral of Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1927 until his death in 1964. But this is juxtaposed with another scene featuring travelling clowns/entertainers—Pasolini’s way of “quoting” Fellini and incorporating the comic carnivalesque (a move which, for example, Terrence Malick imitates in Days of Heaven ten years later).

Pasolini is also not above using Benny-Hill-style sped-up motion for a laugh, and watch for a couple of comic moments that will be quoted in turn, later, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. But my favourite is a sequence that is rather hard to describe, but which entails Totò and his son/sidekick communicating with sparrows by using their… dance language?

In a scene that has, shall we say, aged poorly, Totò and Ninetto Davoli as father and son (surnamed “Innocenti”) take turns going off in a hayfield with the fantastical comely lass “Luna,” whom the father afterwards indirectly labels a “whore.” I think this was supposed to be the embrace-of-life-after-the-death-of-Marxism moment but unfortunately it now plays as something more like Luce Irigaray’s “hommo-sexuality.” So it is not just the mourning of the passing of communism that makes this film feel like it belongs to another age. I think the film works best for me when I think of that final sequence as a coda from another time rather than a summation or conclusion of what has come before.

Blu-ray diary: The Gospel According to Pasolini (Pasolini 3b: Il Vangelo secondo Matteo)

05 Jan
January 5, 2013

“It won’t be a mainstream film in the common sense of the word, because this story doesn’t give anything to the audience, but… I’d like to say that it’s a story that gives everything by giving nothing.” 

— Pier Paolo Pasolini, before filming Il Vangelo secondo Matteo

The Gospel According to MatthewJudging from any number of reviews, blog posts, and comments that one reads online, Pasolini’s third feature film, The Gospel According to Matthew, is at least as baffling to, and misunderstood by, contemporary viewers as it has ever been.  For various reasons, it seems to confuse believers and non-believers alike. And yet with a few clarifications, and some brief context, I think it can be made much more accessible.

Pasolini made two very interesting choices with this film.  The first was to film just one of the gospels, rather than following the typical Jesus-film path of attempting to harmonize the four accounts, something that people have been trying for about, oh, 1850 years.

Pasolini has his own reasons for this choice but it’s interesting to note that until the modern period it was the most influential gospel. The fact that it rendered the Gospel of Mark superfluous, by containing almost all of it, played into this, as well as traditional placement as first in the canon (even though GMark was older). An additional factor was its alleged authorship by Matthew himself, one of the first followers of Jesus.

Masters of Cinema, who issued a fantastic Blu-ray/DVD combo edition (Region B locked) of this film last March, have made it a point of emphasis that they have changed the English title from that of its previous cinematic releases—The Gospel According to St. Matthew—to precisely translate the Italian title as The Gospel According to Matthew, without the “Saint” honorific. Their notes on their website as well as on the first pages of the packaged booklet quote Pasolini as having been caused “considerable anguish” by the pious addition to the English title.

But—and this is mostly a side point—the anguish (and the correction) do seem like misplaced emphasis when you consider that scholars, Christian and not, have recognized since the 1600s that Matthew wasn’t the author at all.  The fact that it is an anonymous text did not keep it from being associated, from a very early date in Christian tradition, with one of the first apostles, but the fact is, calling the author “Matthew” is really just a convention, in textual history terms. But Pasolini seems to have quite unaware of gospel scholarship in general, and his Vatican adviser, with whom he is seen touring Palestine in Sopralluoghi in Palestina, seems to have been rather conservative even in terms of Catholic scholarship.

This side of Pasolini that seemed to want to pay some homage to church tradition has perhaps led him to the second interesting choice, which was to limit all dialogue to lines found verbatim in the text. Since the Gospel was not written as a drama per se, this leads to various challenges that can seem a bit clumsy, including actors attempting to emote what they aren’t allowed to say.  One person’s rigorous minimalism can be another’s awkward over-acting, I suppose.

So, both of these choices function as boundary setting within which Pasolini, who prefers his aesthetic choices to have a certain rigour, tells one evangelist’s story.  Within these strictures he allows himself considerable freedom, as we shall see.  The additional move that he makes in terms of structuring is to divide the story into three acts.

Act 1: Three kings disorienting are.

Because of these minimalizing choices I think the opening act can be difficult to follow whether or not one is generally familiar with the story of Jesus. There is no annunciation of the coming birth to Mary, no Bethlehem inn, no stable, no manger, no shepherds come to worship. That is because all of those elements are found in the Gospel of Luke, not Matthew.

But even the uniquely Matthean elements of what we now call the Christmas story are altered in various details. There is no visual following of the star, no settling of the holy family in Nazareth. The family leaves to hide Jesus in Egypt on the advice of the angel, but in this rendering does so in broad daylight rather than under cover of night.

What is more, because Pasolini doesn’t permit himself to add any dialogue, several key characters must be presented on screen with no explanatory conversation to smooth the way. Mary, Joseph, the wise men/astrologers from the East, Herod and his council, all appear on screen with no introduction. Even the most knowledgeable/devout person will inevitably have some moments of wondering whom they are looking at.

Herod’s slaughter of the innocents provides some scenes that are both shocking and—at least, as I have always found them—unintentionally hilarious. The mothers running from the slaughtering soldiers with babes in arms are clearly carrying dolls in many cases, and when some of them are thrown in the air this becomes far too obvious, in a classic Saturday Night Live dummy-throwing sort of way.

These first scenes of the film are bound to be at least somewhat challenging unless one is forewarned.

Act 2: Miracles and sermons, again for the first time.

Perhaps the most obvious downside of choosing the Gospel of Matthew is the way that the text is organized. Rather than spreading Jesus’ parables and sayings through the narrative like GLuke, this material is famously pulled together into five “sermons,” some of them quite long. Four of them are included, along with stories of various deeds, in the middle section of GMatthew.  This presents two problems for a filmmaker.  One is the lack of any continuing narrative thread to follow. The other is the risk of boring listeners with too much talking, or in the case of believers mentally sending them back to church with material that they have heard too many times in the same way. In order to meet these two challenges Pasolini treats the source material much more freely than he does in the other two acts of the film.

Pasolini’s answer to the narrative momentum problem is to break up and stretch out the story of John the Baptist’s imprisonment and execution, as well as his followers’ interactions with Jesus, in order to provide at least some kind of side-story narrative framework and backdrop for Jesus’ ministry. This works reasonably well, if stretching a bit.

His answer to the second issue is more interesting.  He cherry picks some of the most famous material from the Sermon of the Mount, and presents Jesus (played by a distractingly unibrowed Enrique Irazoqui) preaching it, but in no order that corresponds to this Gospel or the others. This apparent randomization amounts to a classic Marxist tactic—defamiliarization. By shuffling the deck he seems to be challenging the churched viewer to hear these texts, many of them quite radical, for the first time. And by presenting Jesus against various backdrops he makes it clear to possible objectors that he is anthologizing the material.

Pasolini also feels freer in this section to drop non-sayings material as well, relying on a few representative miracles rather than the whole list. In one case he constructs a miracle episode rather from scratch, taking Jesus’ pronouncements on healing a man with a disabled hand and redeploying them in the healing of a man who needs crutches to walk—purely for visual impact, one would think.

Act 3: Spirits in the material world. Jerusalem, betrayal, execution, muted resurrection, and no zombies.

Once Jesus comes to Jerusalem, confronts the money-changers in the temple, and otherwise begins to stir up trouble, the familiar sequence of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and execution is set in motion, and here Pasolini is back to following the general order of the Gospel text, with various omissions and tweaks.  The biggest omission is the fifth sermon, the thoroughly apocalyptic one that in the source text is given privately to Jesus’ disciples. Dropping the extended (two full chapters long) description of the end of days has the overall effect of drawing Jesus in more Marxist-friendly, material-world-focused terms.

By contrast, Jesus’ vituperative pronouncements of “woe” on the religious leaders of his day are included in full, even though they do little to move the story along—it is already thoroughly clear at this stage that they have it in for him. Call no one “Father,” Jesus says, providing a challenge that has always been a trifle odd-sounding for the faithful Catholic.

In Mamma Roma, he has already delivered us a filmic tableau based on da Vinci’s Last Supper, so here he instead goes out of his way to give us the anti-da-Vinci version—a peasants’ meal, disciples clustered wherever they can find a perch near Jesus, sans table.

Some viewers may notice a distinct lack of emphasis on the trial before Pilate. This is pretty much the opposite approach to that of Martin Scorsese, who in The Last Temptation of Christ decided to stunt-cast David Bowie in the Pilate role. Here Pilate doesn’t even merit a close-up. The release of Barabbas in place of Jesus is skipped entirely. I’m really not sure why.

GMatthew, true to its emphasis on apocalyptic matters, uniquely among the Gospels presents the death of Jesus on the cross as a kind of mini-apocalypse itself, complete with massive earthquakes and dead saints’ bodies emerging from their graves.  Pasolini’s film depicts the earthquake but, disappointingly for me, takes a pass on the saint-zombies. No doubt he considered that too visually distracting to put on screen.

Finally, there is the resurrection, which has an odd bid of re-ordering. The women who come to the grave on Sunday morning, rather than finding the stone rolled away already by an angel, see it fall over in front of them to reveal an empty grave. Perhaps more dramatic, but the source text version has the merit of at least explaining how the revived Jesus got out.

Pasolini also drops the story of the women meeting Jesus personally on their way to alert the disciples, cutting directly to Matthew’s final scene of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. Like the source text, Pasolini has no ascent of Jesus into heaven. In the end, Pasolini’s Jesus, even the resurrected one, is very firmly in this world.

I’ve been nowhere near exhaustive here in my list of Pasolini’s changes and omissions in his film of the Gospel of Matthew. I hope I’ve clarified the mix of artistic limitation and freedom with which Pasolini was functioning in the making of his film, and I hope that in turn this might help one appreciate much more readily this complex and challenging film.