The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

The Gospel According to St. Matthew is a divine combination of story and style. A surprisingly faithful adaptation of the Book of Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus is crafted through the Italian neorealism style. As a result, the film is a much needed departure from the heavy-handed symbolism, overwrought dramatics and spectacles of earlier adaptations of Christ’s life.

Therefore, this adaption of Christ is a lot more inviting, not pressured into being some form of evangelicalism or indoctrination. The neorealism style lets the events unfold naturally, and there’s an attention to being more historically accurate and grounded, breaking away from many of the more widely held misconceptions about the events of Christ’s life.

Some, especially Christians, might find this style upsetting because it’s almost as if the film is stripped of the raw emotions that usually come from adaptations of this tale. The acting style is still, almost stilted. There are few impassioned moments in the film, but this style actually enhances and elevates them, making those moments jump out as powerful and potent.

The film is also very still. Often, a scene opens with almost no words and the camera simply soaks in the texture of the scene, the faces and the setting. And then the action unfolds. This makes the film a meditation on the events of Christ’s life, not simply a recreation.

And while there are a lot of these quiet moments, the film is filled with a lot of words. Almost all the dialogue is taken directly from the Book of Matthew.  Whether or not one agrees with the words, there’s no denying how well-crafted some of these passages are and how fantastic some of the dialogue heavy sequences can be. The film recognized the power of these words, knowing there’s little need to manufacture any more than what is in the account.

However, this does mean that some of the moments in the film won’t make sense to people who haven’t read the scripture as the film doesn’t always do a good job of giving the context needed. For instance, the scene where Satan temps Jesus in the desert has no explanation, this average looking man shows up and they have this odd conversation that will likely perplex viewers who don’t have previous knowledge.

Therefore, this is a film designed more for an audience that knows the story. It’s not so much the content that is supposed to be compelling, but the presentation of a story told countless times through a new lens. How does it impact the viewer when the symbolism is stripped? When Christ is not seen with an aura of awe surrounding him? In some ways, it defamiliarizes the story, allowing audiences to see the tale through fresh eyes.

And that is what makes The Gospel According to St. Matthew one of the finest, if not the finest adaptation of Christ’s life. It casts away the trappings, throws off so many of the pomp and tradition built around the tale, and goes back to the text, reframing and reinvigorating the old, well-known tale.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing