Can you imagine a less likely candidate to make what, after 40 years, may still be the greatest and most moving film about Jesus Christ? Pasolini was not only a gay Marxist but a devout atheist. His fascination with Jesus may have connected with his most personal theme, that of the outsider (with his artistic, political and sexual nature, he saw himself as the consummate outsider). Although one of Italy's leading intellectuals, he also moved among the laborers, indigents, and hustlers (some of whom were his lovers, not to mention the inspiration for his early poetry and novels), whose counterparts two millennia earlier had walked with Jesus.
Jesus's story also let Pasolini explore the complexities of real-world politics even while recreating an ancient culture with astonishing immediacy. He also relished the opportunity to play with a vast, and eclectic, artistic tradition, from Jean-Luc Godard's striking documentary style in "the two trials of Christ.... to painting... Piero della Francesca (in the Pharisees' clothes), Byzantine art, Christ's face like a Rouault, etc."
We also see El Greco not only in some compositions but in the intriguing casting of Enrique Irazoqui, a Catalan economics student, as Jesus. Pasolini had also considered such young, subversive literary lions as Jack Kerouac and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. With Pasolini's encyclopedic knowledge of all the arts, you could go on indefinitely trying to unravel the cultural allusions which make up just one strand of the film's rich texture.
The result, as they say, is history. It is like no biblical picture seen before; a quantum leap beyond the artificiality of, say, King of Kings, both De Milles's silent version and Nicholas Ray's 1961 remake, and later pictures like Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ are inconceivable without Pasolini's model.
Pasolini had the uncanny gift for using the simplest, most economical means to bring his vision to life. Some of the locations are breathtaking, from an enormous city which seems to grow out of a mountainside to the surreal wasteland where Satan tempts Jesus (filmed on Mount Etna). By imaginatively selecting these locales - and not having to build sets - Pasolini powerfully recreated the feel of the ancient Middle East at a tiny fraction of the cost of a Hollywood production.
He also took enormous pains to cast exactly the right faces. Radically, he chose real farmers and workers to enact their historical counterparts (instead of John Wayne playing a Roman centurion as in The Greatest Story Ever Told). Perhaps the film's most intriguing aspect is that all the characters seem drained of an inner emotional life (which elsewhere Pasolini explores rigorously). This is sacred material presented in the style of legend. This visual and performance approach matches Matthew's prose to perfection. But there could also be more provocative reasons for it.
Take the Sermon on the Mount montage, consisting entirely of close-ups of Jesus preaching with immense force - the background reflecting each changing verse. (The footage came from the abandoned sacred-style approach; Pasolini ingeniously integrated it by using sharp editorial rhythms.) Here as throughout the film, Pasolini's Jesus is both earthly and otherworldly, harsh and tender. And although his inner life remains completely opaque, he emerges - perhaps in part because he has been 'de-psychologized' - as a figure of power but also complexity and ambiguity. Pasolini was forever picking apart the discrepancies not only in society - including religion and politics (as seen in Accattone and Hawks and the Sparrows) - but in himself. Here we see the "tough" Jesus, who "comes not to bring peace," smites a fig tree, violently hurls moneychangers out of the Temple, and warns people that they are either "with me or against me." But we also see the Jesus of love and compassion, who heals the sick, treats children with affection, and performs miracles (most are breathtaking, reproduced with the simplest means, as when he walks on water).
The only aspect of this magnificent film which does not work for me is the self-consciously eclectic (and Oscar-nominated!) use of music, which extends from Bach to Prokofiev to folk music. Pasolini wants this polyglot score to create subtle, and shifting, tensions between the world of ancient Judea and our own, but its incongruity and repetitiveness are sometimes distracting. By contrast, the use of silence is stunning. He communicates so much in the wordless opening scene between the pregnant Mary and her baffled husband, just by their faces and postures. These are people truly, yet to them confusingly, touched by the divine. He also captures the tactile reality of their world (you can feel the stones), even as his simple but striking compositions connect his own vision with such Renaissance masters as Giotto. This is filmmaking at its most subtle, resonant, and - while acknowledging the long tradition of Christian motifs in art - original. Pasolini brings together history, art and his own probing genius to depict Jesus in all of his humanity and divinity.
However I want to warn potential purchasers that this Water Bearer version is a high priced non-anamorphic, poor quality print (although it claims to be digitally remastered), it has burned in subtitles with no chapter stops. I had thought DVD production and quality had improved greatly in the last couple of years, this is an unfortunate (1 star) exception. If you want to see another great Pasolini film with a great anamorphic almost pristine transfer I would direct you to MGM's version of his "The Decameron".