Holy Monday with Pasolini and St. Matthew

A couple years ago, I started offering to my congregation Matins on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week, which includes hearing the accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus from the Gospels according to Matthew (Monday), Mark (Tuesday), and Luke (Wednesday). It is not easy to read (and probably not easy to listen to) two entire chapters of the Gospels. It is easy for one’s mind to wander, or to wonder when it will be finished—to wonder as we wander: how many pages are left? So especially on Good Friday, we divide up the Passion according to John into small sections, rather than hearing it all at once.

While there is certainly benefit in hearing sections of the reading, interspersed with the stanzas of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” there is another kind of benefit in hearing the reading straight through without embellishment or dramatization. And this is something like what happens to the viewer of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo [1964; streaming on Amazon Prime]) by the famous Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Transplanted from Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Capernaum to Southern Italy, with a previously unknown actor (Enrique Irazoqui) playing Jesus, Pasolini’s film is not a re-creation of Matthew’s Gospel, so much as a translation. Pasolini mostly sticks with the actual words in Italian of Matthew (except for in Matthew 28, where he inexplicably omits Jesus’ command to baptize). Unlike The Chosen, Pasolini does not fill in gaps in the stories at all. In a sense, he expands by contracting. Jesus’ teaching is presented in a montage of Irazoqui’s Christ, in different clothing, at different times of the day, in different locations. The words of Matthew are used sparingly, almost as accompaniments to the faces Pasolini shows us.

And yet, in his careful and moderated pacing, watching the film is like listening to a long reading from the Gospel. There is little to no emotional or dramatic embellishment, except at a few moments where Jesus is confronting the Pharisees and scribes. We are not meant to wonder and observe what it was like in the third decade anno Domini, during the life of Jesus. Pasolini’s vision is realistic, a translation of what the camera “sees” to the screen, but it is a different kind of realism than the sort that tries to re-create only what would have happened during the actual time that Jesus was walking around on the earth. At various times (the scene with the pregnant Mary framed by a stone archway is the most obvious), we see the people as icons or paintings, the people and places made sacred.

In an essay on Pasolini’s approach to “sacred ground,” Noa Steimatsky focuses on the way that Pasolini brings together the high and the low, the sacred and the profane, the humble and the great. This is the “contamination” (not a pejorative) of one with the other, and their intersection. For Christians (and apparently even for Pasolini, a Marxist and an atheist), this idea is most apparent in the Incarnation itself, where the exalted (God) meets the humble (human). According to Steimatsky, “Where a truly secular artist might have located here a debunking of theological dogma and myth or, conversely, a rationale for ignoring altogether the traces of the past, Pasolini embraces both the humble material concreteness of such traces and the grand resonance of the myth” (“Pasolini on Terra Sancta: Towards a Theology of Film,” Rites of Realism[ed. Ivone Margulies], 248).

This is something like what icons do, Steimatsky says: they bring the divine into the material and the human, and it is there that we approach and encounter God. However one might question the truth of that theological claim for icons, it is certainly true of the Son’s incarnation, where He descends to us, and humbles Himself even to death on a cross. For Christians, the events of Holy Week (and indeed of the entire church calendar) also have something of the character of divine works translated and transferred into our particular time and place. While Pasolini might have ideological reasons for using the poor and working class to represent the people in first-century Judea and Galilee, the accounts of the Gospels are always translated into other times and places. Even those who witnessed the events themselves had to have the words and actions of Jesus “translated” by faith in the one who was speaking and doing them.

Building on the idea of medieval pilgrimages (and finding a parallel in Pasolini’s research for The Gospel According to St. Matthew), Steimatsky puts it this way: “By translating the connotations of a place into the narrative-temporal dimension of the liturgical order, a resiting of the sacred becomes possible. The original pilgrimage gives way to a procession between local European sites in an established ceremonial order that, in the liturgical year, retraces the trajectory from Annunciation to Pentecost” (250).

While Lutherans generally do not practice even liturgical “pilgrimages,” the events of Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection are “re-sited” into our churches in a way that requires (from the human perspective) a little work to listen as the events are recited, and (from the divine perspective) the creation of faith that these strange events—no less strange when they were actually happening—are for me in both liturgical and sacramental contexts.

The services of Holy Week are not and should not be re-enactments of the events of the week before Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is to make the mistake of thinking that if we could just go back and experience something of how it “really was,” then it would be more “real” to us. Besides the fact that such a thing is inherently impossible, it misses the point of what has been recorded for us in the Scriptures and what is being given to us, especially on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. We are not watching a realistic re-enactment; we are being given the fruits and results of those events physically and actually. And in the most important sense, these divine words and means are more “real” than if we were actually in the Upper Room, or standing under the cross, or at the empty tomb. Interestingly, these liturgies are also the opposite of attempts to translate Biblical or Gospel events into modern times. That is just another way of trying to get to some other “reality” that is outside or beyond the words we hear and the sacraments we receive.

Pasolini’s Gospel walks a middle line between re-enactment in the Holy Land and transferring everything to modern time, modern dress, and modern speech. He wrote, “[W]hen I told the story of Christ I didn’t reconstruct Christ as he really was. If I had reconstructed the history of Christ as he really was I would not have produced a religious film because I am not a believer….But…I am not interested in deconsecrating: this is a fashion I hate, it is petit bourgeois. I want to re-consecrate things as much as possible, I want to re-mythicize them” (quoted in Steimatsky, 254). If we set aside the question of “myth,” Pasolini’s goal was to translate, rather than re-enact or transfer, Christ’s words and actions, and thereby “re-consecrate” them for the viewer. In this way, the unbelieving Pasolini created a Gospel film that might actually be more “Christian” than some films explicitly made by believers.

But to return to the hearing of the entire Passion account, there is something that happens as we struggle to remain present and listening, especially as they are read outside of a dramatic context. I found that something happened to me similar to what happens when I am watching a filmmaker who uses very long takes, or very slow pans, or makes you work to pay attention because no action is immediately forthcoming. (For a recent example, try the documentary Gunda.)

You start with impatience because you are used to constant action, achieved often by constant cutting. But as the scene sits before you, you begin to pay attention to what you are seeing and why. All of a sudden, like looking at one of those hidden pictures that only appears if you stare at it in the right way, what might otherwise be background or environment begins to shine with a new light and a new significance. You are brought in to that world in a way you didn’t think possible a few seconds (or minutes!) earlier—in part because you thought you had seen and known all there was to see or know. All the more when you read or hear all four Passion accounts in succession. The spaces and the edges start to open up and then the words are cast in high relief. Hearing (or watching) transitions to meditation.

God grant that all the Words we hear  and on which we meditate this week open up and be “reconsecrated” for us, that the truly resurrected Christ might speak them into ears newly dug with faith (see Psalm 40:6).