Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus in "The Gospel according to Matthew" by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964)

Pasolini: "My foot caught in the stirrup”

The image from the Easter poster 2020 is taken from Pasolini’s "The Gospel according to Matthew". But the poet’s relationship with the figure of Christ was not random. Already at the age of twenty, an atheist, he wrote: "I look for Him everywhere".
Tommaso Ricci

Immerse yourself into viewing the film The Gospel according to Matthew – from which the image from the Easter poster 2020 is taken – more than half a century after its realization, into that austere black and white, those strange and unfamiliar faces, that succession of events narrated by a somewhat rough and almost absent script. The viewer wonders not only about the story it tells, not only about the film’s style ("Faithful to the story but not to the inspiration of the Gospel", L'Osservatore Romano, 1964; "The best film about Jesus ever made in the history of cinema”, L'Osservatore Romano, 2014), but about the narrator’s, director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s, inner search. Why did a Marxist like him need to bring to the big screen, with philological loyalty, a story in which "he did not believe", the story of Jesus of Nazareth that was not even taken from an apocryphal gospel, but from one of the three synoptics who, for centuries, have been proclaimed from the pulpits of Christian churches? Perhaps he perceived an impulse analogous to the one that, a year before, had led Pope John XXIII to address Pacem in Terris "to all men of good will". But the profound reason runs through Pasolini’s entire existence, and we shall try to document it through some of his own words.

"Jo i soj un biel fì, / i plans dut il dì, /ti prej, Jeus me, / no fami murì. / Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. / Jo i soj un biel fì, / irit dut il dì, / ti prej, Jesus me, ah fami murì. / Jesus, Jesus, Jesus" (from the Friulian to English: "I am a handsome boy, I cry all day long, please my Jesus, do not let me die. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. I am a handsome boy, I laugh all day long, please my Jesus, ah let me die. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus). In this antinomic litany-nursery rhyme of the early 1940s, in pure Frulian dialect, the twenty-year old Pasolini already alludes to Jesus, about whom he would later say, as an atheist, "I look for him everywhere". For him, this lacerating call to a hidden God remained constant.

The painful and magnetic burden of the scandalous and perturbing figure of the Christus patiens, naked and innocent body ignominiously nailed to the tree, already stands out in the verses of The Passion: "Wounded Christ, / blood of violets, / pity of the eyes / light of Christians! / Blooming flower, / on the distant mountain / how can we / weep for you, O Christ? / The sky is a lake / bellowing around / the silent Calvary. / O Crucified One, / let us stand still and contemplate you".

One of the passages that perhaps best explains his ambivalent attitude, adhesive yet fugitive, sacramental yet gnostic, thirsty yet desperate before Jesus, are the verses of Blasphemy, where Pasolini cries out the carnality of Christ: "How else do the witnesses of God speak if not by example? / The words that I now say, / are but one part, the last, of the example / that I witness to God, I give you by my presence, / that is by my life. / Do not throw your spirit into the fight! / Throw your body into the fight! / It is with this that your spirit speaks, what you are. / How much did Christ speak! / Yet nothing spoke more than his body / nailed to the cross in silence. / Do not use words, do not use images, / do not use symbols. / Be what you are! / Do not go through any symbols! / Always be what you are.”

Furthermore: "Christ is in reality. / Why then do we not just be with him? / Why do we use symbols of exchange? / what do I do with the Christ / that you sell me with your word and image, / that is with your symbols / which are the necessity of life / and therefore its alteration, / the accepted loss of its reality?".

Pasolini had the tormenting gift of a very sharp mind and a heart hungry for purity, he lacked the grace of a gaze of human compassion, of an encounter (and many like to fantasize about the humanly extraordinary outcome that the contact that Fr. Luigi Giussani sought a few days before the poet’s tragic death could have had. And how much he would have valued Giussani’s invitation to his people: "I wish you never to be calm").

Finally, an eloquent public confession by Pasolini, that he made in a letter to Fr. Giovanni Rossi, from the Pro Civitate Christiana in Assisi, the city where the filmmaker had conceived, reading the pages of the Gospel on the day Pope John XXIII was also there, his idea for the film: "I am stuck, dear Fr. Giovanni, in a manner that only Grace can undo. My will, and that of others, is powerless... Perhaps because I have always fallen from a horse: I have never fearlessly mounted the saddle (like so many powerful or wretched sinners): I have always fallen, with one foot caught in the stirrup, so that my race is not a ride, but a being dragged away, with my head banging on dust and stones. I can neither re-mount the horse of the Jews and Gentiles, nor fall forever upon the earth of God.”

Susanna Pasolini, the filmmaker's mother, as Mary, Mother of Christ

Pasolini perceived that the knot of his life could only be undone in Jesus, but he judged his own tangle too unworthy and inextricable for the divine hand or perhaps, simply, he awaited a human hand to offer itself to him as humble companionship. As if reinforcing the psalmist’s begging question as a final judgement: "What is man for you to care for him?" and almost incorporating, with a vague Pascalian Jansenist accent (Pasolini read a lot of Pascal), the sad and faded answer: it is irredeemable, hopelessly sinful, it is dung, it is nothing, the design of his destiny has taken other and unfathomable paths, different from that tenderness that he himself longed for.

Faced with a human need that cries out so sharply and desperately, one can only wonder, trembling: what am I doing with that undeserved grace I have received?