The Greatest Story Ever Told? Depends…

It’s interesting that George Stevens, a Christian believer, made a soporifically dull film in The Greatest Story Ever Told that not even the great Swedish actor Max von Sydow or a host of guest stars could breathe any life into.

On the other hand, Gospel According to Matthew is a powerful, moving work for many reasons: Pasolini’s selection of appropriate Passion music, principally Bach and Mozart, but also Odetta, Prokofiev and Webern, perfectly balances the intensity of his images; like Bresson, he mostly casts non-professionals in key roles whose faces give the impression of springing directly from the Italian clay, weathered visages, crooked teeth and all; Enrique Irazoqui, at the time a Spanish architecture student, was an inspired choice for the central role giving a dynamic, fierce, declamatory and deeply passionate portrayal of Christ; Pasolini’s use of Christian iconography drawn from diverse visual sources, for example Botticelli, Roualt and many Renaissance figures in art, helps to give Gospel great mythic force; his creation of a physical environment through the landscapes and villages of Southern Italy combines neorealism and the mythic in fine balance. He manages to extract the spiritual essence of Christ, his life and work thereby succeeding in his stated intention to reconsecrate not deconsecrate the material. It is the height of irony that a self-professed Marxist should create a definitive masterpiece about Christ but the evidence is there for all to see – a work of the highest and most moving inspiration.

Yesterday I revisited another choice of Christ films, Samuel Bronston’s 1961 epic King of Kings, directed by the esteemed auteur Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place). It is a very moving and powerful film, scripted by the elusive Philip Yordan, with a suitably grand Miklos Rosza musical score. It places the Christ story against a highly charged political background, as one might expect from a left-leaning director and has strong performances from Harry Guardino as the revolutionary Barabbas, Rip Torn as the anguished Judas Iscariot, Siobhan McKenna as a gentle, understated Mary, Hurd Hatfield as a sneering Pontius Pilate, the great Robert Ryan as a fierce John the Baptist, a very campy Frank Thring as Herod Antipas whose step-daughter Salome (Brigid Bazlin) causes him considerable grief, Ron Randell as the centurion Lucius who undergoes a change of heart, and Jeffrey Hunter, whose portrayal of Christ is quite vigorous, in spite of the unwarranted flack it received when the film was first released. He manages to convey Christ as a quiet revolutionary, choosing the inner life, peace and love as a greater revolutionary force than the violent path chosen by Barabbas.

I’m saving up Roberto Rossellini’s Messiah, another fine film on the subject, for next time.

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