By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published March 29, 2012
In Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful story “Parker’s Back,” O.E. Parker, a man festooned from head to toe with tattoos, visits a tattoo parlor to bring to completion the illustration of his body. He wants a tattoo on his back. A religious tattoo. He intends for the illustration to please his fundamentalist wife, Sarah Ruth; instead, his wife is mortified and O.E. Parker is left at the end of the story to “cry like a baby,” the unknowing recipient of the grace to share in Christ’s own suffering.
At the tattoo parlor, the artist asks Parker what he wants—“saints, angels, Christs, or what?” “God,” says Parker. “Father, Son, or Spirit,” asks the artist. “Just God,” says Parker. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”
As he peruses the book of tattoo samples, Parker recognizes the familiar images of Jesus we all know, “The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend.” The images become more graphic as Parker flips through the book, so that eventually they all seem to become indistinguishable. And then Parker spies the penetrating eyes of a Byzantine Christ. The picture says “as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.”
Parker gets the tattoo. He returns home to his wife, and implores her to appreciate what he has done, after all, for her benefit. “Who is it,” Sarah Ruth asks. “It ain’t anybody I know.” “It’s him,” says Parker. “Him who?” asks Sarah Ruth. “God!” Parker explains. “God? God don’t look like that! He don’t look. He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” was chosen by the Vatican for its list of 45 films that best expressed the mystery of faith.
O’Connor would have appreciated the dilemma faced by Pier Paolo Pasolini when he came to make a film based on the life of Christ. Pasolini, like O.E. Parker, was not a Christian. In fact, he was a Marxist and an atheist. But among the few films made about the life of Jesus, Pasolini’s portrayal has endured as one of the most striking, both beautiful and strange, both literal and poetic. When the Vatican compiled its famous list of the 45 films that had best expressed the mystery of faith, Pasolini’s film was one of only 15 chosen in the religious category. Like O.E. Parker, Pasolini had managed to reveal something profound in spite of his own lack of belief.
Pasolini began “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” in 1962, in answer to Pope John XXIII’s call for increased dialogue between non-Christian artists and the Church. In October of that year, while crowds of people jammed the streets of Assisi during the pope’s visit, Pasolini remained confined to his hotel room, where the only reading material available happened to be the Gospels. As he recalled later, “I reread them after some 20 years, when as a boy I read them for the first time. That day, I read them from beginning to end, like a novel. And in the exaltation of reading—it’s the most exalting thing one can read—there came to me the idea of making a film.” Pasolini settled on St. Matthew’s Gospel, because it seemed the closest to his own political views as well as possessing what he called a “national-popular epic quality.”
In making the film, Pasolini wisely neglected the stereotypical images such as those O.E. Parker disdains. He avoids elaborate period costumes, strips away all opulence, and even includes folk music and slave spirituals on the soundtrack, all as a means of making his film personal and immediate. The film then achieves a strangely sacred quality, characterized by what Pasolini called “faith, myth, and collective mythology” in contrast with the more familiar imagery of lavish biblical epic films so common at the time.
The problem, of course, was that Pasolini was not a believer. He was, however, the product of an Italian culture whose past and present are so steeped in the Catholic imagination that denying the powerful influence of Christianity means renouncing an integral part of one’s identity. Pasolini solved the problem he faced as an artist by “plunging myself into the soul of someone who believed.” The believer Pasolini chose was a collective believer, the common working class with whom he identified.
Ultimately, Pasolini’s own views become irrelevant. In art, even in works of adaptation, what remains essential is not the personality of the artist, but the quality of the work of art in and of itself. In the end, as the Vatican wisely recognized, the work—particularly religious art—is independent from its human creator.
In keeping with his desire to present the Gospel in film terms while avoiding demystification, Pasolini decided to adhere closely to the text itself, even as he translated the text into cinematic images. The dialogue in the film is the dialogue of St. Matthew; as Pasolini said, “No image or inserted word could ever attain the poetic heights of the text.”
The cinematic poetics, however, are all Pasolini’s, channeled perhaps through the sacred quality of the Gospel itself. Pasolini recognized the powerful, pre-conceived perceptions the viewer brings to a film about Jesus Christ. Recall what Sarah Ruth Parker says, “No man shall see his face.” So instead of resorting to cliché, Pasolini tried something new.
Upon first viewing the film nearly 50 years after its initial release, astonishment remains an apt description for the immediate reaction one has to the film. For an American audience, especially, the film has a stark, yet beautiful, tone. In the first five minutes of the film, from the first chaotic barrage of folk music to the appearance of a Joseph, a Virgin Mary, and an angel who all look earthy and familiar, the tone for the entire film is established: Here is the Christian story for the contemporary world; here is a Christ for the modern person whose appreciation of mystery continues to diminish.
While what is said in the film will be completely familiar to the Catholic accustomed to hearing Scripture read aloud, what is seen is entirely new. And the use of long passages of silence lends the film a mythical, contemplative, otherworldly atmosphere. The manner in which Pasolini condenses miracles—the walking upon the water, the loaves and fishes—is stunning. The depiction of the Sermon on the Mount is also curiously rendered because of its use of contrasts: Lighting shifts from dark to bright; Christ is static then mobile, and the camera alternates between subjective and objective viewpoints. And Pasolini implicates the viewer in the more disturbing scenes. In the sequences about the Holy Innocents and the trial before Pilate, the viewer feels a sense of guilty responsibility.
The most radical departure from convention, however, is in the character of Christ himself. Pasolini said he “liked the Christ of Matthew. He was rigorous, demanding, absolute.” And yet this Jesus is also a social reformer who renounces material wealth and demands justice and equality. Some may find the characterization of Jesus in the film to be perhaps too stern. But just as O.E. Parker was compelled to go back to the all-seeing eyes of the Byzantine Christ, so too most film viewers will find themselves drawn to the gaze of Pasolini’s Jesus.