Ranking the Jesus Films

Pasolini (seated) on the set of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SAINT MATTHEW, prior to filming John's baptizing of Jesus.
Pasolini (seated) on the set of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SAINT MATTHEW, prior to filming John’s baptizing of Jesus.

It bothers me that Jesus has never once been portrayed actually looking like the real Jesus would have looked like two-thousand years ago. In every major Hollywood and otherwise film, we see a white man with white disciples preaching to white crowds. He would not have had light skin and flowing light-brown hair, and certainly would not have had blue eyes, Jeffrey. Jesus would have been dark-skinned—or very tan, to say the least—with dark hair, and would have been short, probably barely five-feet tall. His followers would have looked the same. Just take a look at what Arabic and Middle Eastern people look like today, and you would find what the majority of characters in the Jesus story looked like. It is also irksome that Jesus has never been performed by a Jewish actor, and from a storytelling point of view, not once have we seen a secular characterization of him as strictly a social and political revolutionary, not a religious figure. In this daring and politically correct world we live in, we can surmise that one or all three of these gripes will inevitably be fulfilled. That said, there certainly have been enough biblical films over the years to find some good ones, and for this essay, I chose to stay strictly to the ones about Jesus. Forgive me if there are any not on the list, and I did choose to go with films only in the sound era:

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Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” to Be Released on Blu-Ray Through Criterion in November

Christmas might as well be in November this year, because for the first time ever in the United States, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” will be coming to DVD and Blu-Ray, on the 13th of the month. And who is carrying out the release? Well, you probably guessed it: the Criterion Collection, a film company that if I gushed over them any more than I already do, people would think I was a paid employee. Just the other day, I found myself adding four more of their films to my ever-growing “C.C”, as I call it, by way of their 24-hour, 50% off Flash Sale, which brought many of these pricy films down to below $20. I allowed myself to splurge a little bit, and bought The Night of the Hunter, The Last Temptation of Christ, 8 1/2, and Paths of Glory. It was only last night, when I decided to look through their list of upcoming releases did I find my heart jumping for joy.

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Pier Paolo Pasolini: Gone, But Not Forgotten

Just mention the name Pier Paolo Pasolini to any foreign film connoisseur, and immediately their eyes will light up. That is because Pasolini was one of the most brilliant thinkers in Italy during the 1960’s and 70’s, who unfortunately, never got to reach his full potential because of his murder in 1975. But between 1961 and then, Pasolini took Italy by storm because of his unflinching look at urban life, and his takes on literary masterpieces, which he would convert to film. Although dead thirty-five years this coming November, Pasolini continues to have a very loyal, but small following.

In 1960, he would get his first big break in the film industry when he co-wrote the screenplay for La Dolce Vita, an Academy Award winning film by legendary director Federico Fellini. In 1961, though, he would have a chance to direct his first feature film, Accattone, which took a painful look at the dangerous life of prostitution in Rome. He would follow that up a year later with Mamma Roma, a film that many claim to be his masterpiece. He cast world renowned actress Anna Magnani in the role of a mother who returns to a life of prostitution so she can have enough money to afford a good home for her son and keep him out of trouble.

With two major films already under his helm, Pasolini would finally achieve national notoriety in 1963, albeit negatively. In a short film titled, “La Ricotta”, which was part of a compilation of short stories called Ro.Go.Pa.G (named for the first letters of each directors name; Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pasolini, and Ugo Gregoretti). In his short film, he depicts the making of a movie, with Orson Welles starring as the director, and because of the storyline’s apparent low budget, they film a story of Jesus Christ being crucified in a garbage dump. Pasolini was arrested but later given a suspended sentence.

As part of his penance, he chose to focus on the story of the life of Jesus, titled, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, as his next movie, which the Vatican itself even lauded as a masterpiece. In this film, that had hardly any budget, Pasolini cast people off the street to star in major roles, many having never acted a day in their life both before and after.

By the mid 1960’s, Pasolini finally came into his own when he directed The Hawks and the Sparrows, which was yet another tale involving religion. In this film, Saint Francis insists that the constant fighting between two flocks of birds (hawks and sparrows) must end, and he makes two monks convert them to Christianity. But it was after this film that Pasolini would begin directing his “Mythical Cycle”, comprised of four films- Oedipus Rex, Porcile, Medea, and finally my personal favorite of the group, Teorema, in which British actor Terrence Stamp plays the role of a mysterious visitor who corrupts an average Italian household.

The entire film leaves the audience asking, “Is Stamp God or the Devil?” The ending is still something that no one understands. In the film which runs at just 105 minutes, there are only 923 spoken words, letting the setting and acting stand on their own.

When the 1970’s rolled around, it was apparent that the sexual revolution of that time had played a major influence on Pasolini. He began filming “The Trilogy of Life”, first consisting of The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s infamous medieval comedic jab at the Catholic Church. It was because of this movie that Pasolini would end up becoming the first, and to date, only director in history to have a movie on both the Vatican’s list of movies to see (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew) and movies to ignore (The Decameron).

The final two movies in the trilogy would be The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights. All three were lighthearted comedies that were full of fine acting by stalwarts Ninetto Davoli and Franco Citti (of The Godfather Part II fame), who appeared in all three. But Pasolini’s love of life and fun outlook would take a turn that never veered off course.

By 1975, Pasolini had become disgusted with society, and set out to film one of the most infamous movies in film history called Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom. He would use the novel by Marquis De Sade as a medium and updated it to 1940’s Fascist Italy. In this film, he would display his hatred for Fascism, when he depicted four leaders who, with the help of storm troopers, kidnap eighteen young boys and girls and subject them to one-hundred and twenty days of physical and mental torture during the waning days of Benito Mussolini’s reign.

This movie is not for the faint of heart and contains graphic and disturbing imagery from beginning to end. Pasolini took De Sade’s work and structured it much like Dante’s Inferno, with different segments as the movie went along.

It was because of this movie that many suspect Pasolini was murdered, in 1975. Who really killed him remains a mystery to this very day and the director did not even live to see the most banned movie ever made hit theatres in his native Italy. Pasolini himself was quite the character and it was a shame that the world would never get to see his true potential and unique personality. During post-production of Salo, a reporter approached him wanting to know what kind of audience such a disturbing film could be for and asked who could possibly want to watch such a deplorable movie. Pasolini candidly responded with a grin on his face, “This movie is for everyone, for people like me.”

Previously published in Brookdale Community College’s newspaper, “The Stall”.