Updated: Mar 28
In today's post, I turn back to films about Jesus: The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the Visual Bible's The Gospel of John. Whereas some of the adaptations I looked at earlier in the week felt free to create and add to the gospel narratives as much as necessary in order to serve the creative purposes of the filmmakers, today's adaptations are notable for how strictly they follow their sources. In my next post,I will go on to look at a couple more gospel adaptations which while not as interested in creating events from scratch, still reframe those events in creative ways.
Directed by: Pier Paolo Pasolini [The Gospel According to St. Matthew]; Philip Saville [The Gospel of John]
Starring: Enrique Irazoqui (Jesus), Susanna Pasolini/Margherita Caruso (Mary), Settimio Di Porto (Peter) [The Gospel According to St. Matthew]; Christopher Plummer (Narrator), Henry Ian Cusick (Jesus), Stuart Bunce (John), Daniel Kash (Simon Peter) [The Gospel of John]
Adapting: The Gospel of Matthew; The Gospel of John (GNT)
Synopsis [The Gospel According to St. Matthew]
We begin by seeing the reaction of Joseph to Mary’s news about Jesus’ birth. Then we follow the visitation of the angels, Jesus’ birth, the wise men, the slaughter of the innocents, and the escape into Egypt. We jump forward to John the Baptist’s ministry, Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the desert, and Jesus’ early ministry. Jesus sends out his disciples, we see a montage of his teaching, followed by key miracles and altercations with the Pharisees. Jesus comes to Jerusalem, confronts the Pharisees and chief priests in the temple, has the last supper, gets arrested in the garden, tried, and executed on the cross. Jesus is buried. When his mother returns, an angel bursts forth, announcing that he is not there but is risen. The disciples rush to Galilee where they meet Jesus and are commissioned.
Synopsis [The Gospel of John]
The entire Gospel of John is narrated and, except for the prologue, directly depicted.
Anyone who is skeptical of biblical adaptations that change the original source material will welcome the strictness and specificity of The Gospel of John.
The Primary Biblical Source
Most movies about Jesus’ life draw on all four gospel accounts in order to create an amalgamated harmony. By contrast, both of these films follow a single gospel account and do so quite closely. Matthew only introduces original dialogue in a few instances, even when depicting biblical events that lack dialogue. As a result, the film has to convey information in some creative ways. For example, instead of hearing characters talk, we sometimes see a description of what is happening, taken from the original biblical text. In other cases, characters communicate with one another through non-verbal language and the audience is able to infer what is happening based on our background knowledge (this is how Mary tells Joseph about Jesus’ conception). For the most part, the film follows the flow of the Gospel of Matthew. It only makes a couple alterations, most likely for the sake of narrative flow and time.
John takes all of this a step further. It doesn't introduce any original dialogue and it plays the biblical account as background narration throughout the film. The original order of events in the Gospel of John is followed precisely. The film occasionally leaves space for characters to act or communicate with each non-verbally and there's some additional action (mostly walking) that fills the screen during long bits of narration and Jesus’ big speeches. Other than that, it takes very few liberties.
The Audience’s Perceived Biblical Literacy
Although both films work according to similar formal principles (follow an original gospel account as closely as possible), they seem to make very different assumptions about the audience.
John is intended for two audiences. The first intended audience is extremely biblically literate and prone to fact-checking and quick to judge anything that adds to Scripture. Anyone who is skeptical of biblical adaptations that change the original source material will welcome the strictness and specificity of The Gospel of John. Members of this audience will watch the film with a Bible open, checking to make sure that each line is true to the source – and they will find their effort rewarded. But John isn’t just for the well-versed, converted evangelical; it’s also clearly an evangelistic tool for the biblically illiterate. That’s why, instead of choosing a more literal or a more beautiful translation as the source for its narration and dialogue, the film opts for the rather ugly but plain language of the Good News Translation. Even though the translation often masks the repetition and word play of the Greek source, it is easier for the first time listener to follow than more literal translations.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew doesn’t seem quite as concerned about the ability of its audience to follow the narrative. Several events are executed with little to no dialogue or explanation. The filmmakers just assume that the viewers will already know what’s going on and will be able to follow along. The film was made in Italy while the Catholic Church still maintained a strong hegemony over the population and so the average person was quite aware of the basic events of Jesus’ life.
Much has been made of the fact that the director of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was an atheist, communist, and populist. In the end, however, his determination to render an adaptation that was faithful to the biblical text (not, in his mind, faithful to history) meant that his atheism had a limited effect on the film.
The Role of Multiple Artists or Contributors
Much has been made of the fact that the director of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was an atheist, communist, and populist. In the end, however, his determination to render an adaptation that was faithful to the biblical text (not, in his mind, faithful to history) meant that his atheism had a limited effect on the film. His populism might have had more of an effect. Pasolini famously utilized peasants and other non-professional actors for the majority of his cast. As a result, the expressions and acting are less polished and more subdued than the usual Hollywood film. This actually provides the film with a degree of simplicity and humility that seems fitting.
The Gospel of John’s cast tends toward the opposite extreme. Most of the actors are drawn from Shakespearean theater. As a result, their expressions and vocalizations can feel a bit bombastic and overplayed. It doesn't help that the dialogue flows directly out of the narration. The actors simply don’t have the space that they might have in a theatrical production. It’s also worth noting that, even though John was made as late as 2003, the cast is very Anglo-centric. I also found it strange that the film made all of the high priest’s servants black, since it could lead uninformed viewers to believe that Mediterranean slavery was the same as the raced-based slavery of America.
Although I reviewed The Gospel of John produced by the Visual Bible, a similar project was undertaken more recently by Lumo in 2015, and they navigated ethnicity (as well as other adaptive issues) with much more adeptness. I chose to focus on the Visual Bible because it is the older and more influential version, but the Lumo version is arguably superior.