Along a rocky, barren coastline, Jesus begins teaching, primarily using parables. He attracts disciples; he’s stern, brusque, and demanding. He comes to bring a sword, not peace, he says. He’s in a hurry, moving from place to place near the Sea of Galilee, sometimes attracting a multitude, sometimes being driven away. His parables often take on the powers that be, so he and his teachings come to the attention of the Pharisees, the chief priests, and elders. They conspire to have him arrested, beaten, tried, and crucified, just as he prophesied to his followers. After he dies, he appears to his disciples and gives them final instructions.
At the 1964 Venice Film Festival, The Gospel According to St. Matthew was nominated for 3 awards, including the Golden Lion, and won 2, the OCIC Award and the Special Jury Prize. The Gospel According to St. Matthew was released in the United States in 1966 and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Art Direction (Luigi Scaccianoce), Costume Design, and Score.
Pasolini’s is one of the most effective films on a religious theme I have ever seen, perhaps because it was made by a nonbeliever who did not preach, glorify, underline, sentimentalize or romanticize his famous story, but tried his best to simply record it.
Pasolini … considered himself a poet before a filmmaker, and his films are built of images, impressions and words that sometimes function more as language than as dialogue. That is certainly the case with “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” which tells the life of Christ as if a documentarian on a low budget had been following him from birth. The movie was made in the spirit of Italian neo-realism, which believed that ordinary people, not actors, could best embody characters — not every character, but the one they were born to play.
Whether these actors could handle the dialogue was beside the point. Pasolini decided to shoot without a screenplay, following Matthew page by page and compressing only as much as necessary to give the film an acceptable running time. Every word of dialogue is from Matthew, and much of it is heard during long shots so that we need not see the lips moving.
Jesus is however often seen speaking, and his presence and appearance are unusual in terms of traditional depictions. Like most of Jewish men of his time, he wears his hair short — none of the flowing locks of holy cards. He wears a dark, hooded robe so that his face is often in shadow. He is unshaven but not bearded.