The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Until yesterday, I’d never seen a film by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Feeling a need to rectify that, and suspecting that I couldn’t stomach Salo, I watched The Gospel According to St. Matthew last night.

If you have any sense of film history, you can’t watch this stark, low-budget, black-and-white, telling of the life of Christ without seeing it as a reaction to the Biblical blockbusters of its day. It was, after all, made in 1964. That’s five years after Ben-Hur, three years after King of Kings (AKA: I Was a Teenaged Jesus), and one year before The Greatest Story Ever Told (more accurately described as the most boring movie ever made).

Then there’s the issue of Pasolini, himself. How could the most reverent, spiritual, and faithful life of Jesus movie (and I mean faithful in both the religious sense and as an literary adaptation) be made by a self-proclaimed atheist? Perhaps his rejection of religion allowed him to see the story without sentiment or melodrama.

Pasolini stayed as close to the original text as cinematically possible, using only gospelmatthewMatthew’s dialog (in Italian translation), and no dramatic embellishments. In the Italian neo-realistic tradition, he cast regular people instead of professional actors. He shot the film in the Italian district of Basilicata–a place that’s visually striking and looked–at least in 1964–like it hadn’t changed in millennia. The performers wore vaguely biblical costumes. I would guess that about two thirds of the film is comprised of close-ups.

The result is simply Matthew’s Gospel, illustrated with moving and talking photographs. It’s as if Pasolini is daring the audience, stating that this is what the Bible says happened. Deal with it.

I dealt with it, and I overall liked it, but I didn’t fall in love with Gospel the way many others have. (Consider, for instance, Roger Ebert’s opinion. Ebert, like Pasolini, is a former Catholic.) While I liked the audacity of the movie, and was captivated by the series of fascinating faces Pasolini puts on the screen, I found it difficult to completely throw myself into the story.

But then, I’ve always found Jesus wanting as a dramatic protagonist. He’s too perfect and all-knowing to allow much identification, or concern. That’s true even in a film that eschews drama.

Pasolini forces us to consider everything about Matthew, even the parts we’re not comfortable with. Raised Catholic but converted to Marxism, he simply puts the story that millions of people believe in front of us, and dares us to react.

What’s Screening: January 28 – February 3

Noir City continues through the weekend. Both IndieFest and the Mostly British Film Festival open Friday.

A Strangers on a Train, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. One of Hitchcock’s scarieststrangersontrain films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. Part of the series Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock.

A Airplane!, Castro, Monday, 7:00. They’re flying on instruments, blowing the autopilot, and might possibly like gladiator movies. So win one for the Zipper, but whatever you do, don’t call him "Shirley." Airplane! throws jokes like confetti–carelessly tossing out vast quantities of them so that some might hit their target. There’s no logical reason why a movie this silly can be so satisfying, but then logic never was part of the Airplane! formula. I’d be hard-pressed to name a feature-length comedy with such a high joke-to-minute ratio. A Sketchfest tribute to the film’s three writer/directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. The three of them, plus star Robert Hays, are promised in person.

A- The Mark of Zorro (1940 version), Stanford, Saturday through Monday. Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the markofzorro40peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role his own in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. Power, who was bisexual in real life, plays Don Diego as an effeminate fop, and his masked alter ego as dashing masculinity. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone. Double-billed with the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda.

B Nuremberg, Rafael, opens Friday. If you’re looking for a great, insightful, and emotionally effective documentary about the Third Reich or the Holocaust, this isn’t it. It tries to cover too much in 78 minutes, has a monotone feel, and is clearly bending over to avoid criticizing our wartime allies for their mistakes in trying to appease Hitler. But it has the attraction of something that was, in its time, fresh; you’re watching familiar sights, but you’re seeing them from the vantage point of something new. And you can’t watch this film without thinking about more recent war crimes that should also go on trial. Read my longer account.

Voyeurism and Early Cinema, SFMOMA, Tuesday, noon. This collection of early films concentrates on what cinema arguably was all about then, now, and forever: watching other people. Free.

B+ Sing-A-Long Wizard of Oz, Lark, Saturday & Sunday, 2:30. I’ve never experienced the Sing-A-Long version, and I wizardozdon’t really have to tell you about the non-interactive version, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

IndieFest Preview

I’ve previewed three films coming to IndieFest. Here’s what I thought about them.

B+ The Drummond Will, Roxie, Friday, February 4, 7:00; Sunday, February 6, 2:30;drummondwill Monday, February 7, 7:00. No one can make murder funny like the British. In this low-budget comedy, two very different brothers inherent a ramshackle house from the father neither of them cared for (they don’t much like each other, either). The house contains a bag with a very large amount of money, and at least some of the townspeople know about it. The brothers want to keep everything secret, of course, and it’s not really their fault that the people who might stand in the way of their new found wealth keep dying under suspicious circumstances. Made on a low budget, The Drummond Will lacks the largish cast and familiar faces we associate with English comedy, but the fresh faces seem just as funny. Special kudos go to Mark Oosterveen as the more straight-laced brother (his voice and phrasing remind me of Simon Jones–the original Arthur Dent), and Jonathan Hansler as the local constable (think John Cleese at a normal height). In widescreen black and white.

B Worst in Show, Roxie, Wednesday, February 9, 9:15; Sunday, February 13, 2:30. There’s one thing you know going into a documentary about Petaluma’s Ugliest Dog Contest: You’re going to see an awful lot of adorably ugly dogs. (Believe it or not, even the one shown looks lovable when cuddling with his owner.) What’s surprising is how involved the human contestants become, and why. There’s a real shot at fame and modest fortune by having your dog win this contest, which is covered by media from all over the world. And there are controversies. Should dogs qualify who are ugly because disaster or disease have disfigured them–opening up charges of exploitation–or just those who come by it naturally. But even here, the Chinese Crested are arguably bred for ugliness. The festival web site lists Worst in Show as a 90-minute movie, but the review screener sent to me by the festival runs just under an hour.

D+ The Evangelist, Roxie, Sunday, February 6, 4:45; Wednesday, February 9, 7:00. Another great idea ruined by poor execution. Danny–lonely, gay, miserable, and an atheist of the Richard Dawkins variety–adopts Gideon, a 12-year-old evangelistboy who seems to have materialized on the beach with no backstory. But Gideon turns out to be a fanatical Christian of the most annoying variety. This could have been great with believable characters–or at least entertaining with funny ones. But Danny, as played by Theodore Bouloukos, is dull and borders on being a gay stereotype. And Gideon (Lucas Fox Philips) is simply annoying and arguably evil. There’s no attempt to make him a human being, but just a force of plot development. An interesting twist near the end, plus the way the film captured Provincetown, Massachusetts in widescreen black and white, brought the grade up from a straight D.

Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

They’re out, and there are no real surprises. But I still have a couple of comments:

Like everyone else, I’m assuming that either The Social Network or The King’s Speech will win Best Picture and its almost constant companion, Best Director. Both of them could win Best Screenplay, however. The King’s Speech, based on historical events, is nominated as an Original Screenplay. The Social Network, based on a non-fiction book, is an Adapted Screenplay.

Where is it written in the Academy bylaws that no one under 17 can ever have a leading role? Hailee Steinfeld is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for True Grit, but she’s in almost every scene of the movie, which is essentially about her. This trend goes back at least to Tatum O’Neal, who won this award  for Paper Moon, in which she was clearly the star.

A Weekend in Black and White, Part 2: Noir City

It was dark. It was dangerous. Lust, greed, and fear hung heavily in the air. It was enough to drive you crazy.

That’s right. I spent Saturday at the Castro with two Noir City double bills. That’s four pictures from the 40s and early 50s  I’d never seen before. While the movies where dark and painted a picture of a cruel and hostile world, they were considerably more entertaining than my Friday night venture.

Crazy is the operative word, here. The theme of this year’s festival is noir victims and villains who are "all kinds of crazy––born crazy, driven crazy, and not as crazy as they seem," according the the festival’s web site.


The first movie I saw was the widely respected Gaslight. With it’s MGM production values, Victorian England settings, big star (Ingrid Bergman), and major director (George Cukor), this arguably doesn’t qualify as noir. But the dark atmosphere and crime-and-insanity-driven plot make a good counter-argument. Whether it’s noir or not, it’s an exceptional psychological thriller.

No other actress could look at a man with love and passion like Ingrid Bergman. Here she looks at Charles Boyer with her patented intensity. Her new marriage makes her so happy, it might even help her overcome the decade-old grief that has overwhelmed her since the unsolved murder of her aunt. But her husband is clearly hiding something, and appears to be intentionally driving her insane.

Why are old, B westerns almost always laughably bad, while so many old B noirs can turn your blood to ice water? Consider Strangers In the Night (no relationship to the song), the recently-restored, 56-minute cheapie that the festival double-billed with Gaslight. A marine sergeant on leave (William Terry) visits the female pen pal he fell in love with but has never met. Turns out he has an extremely disturbed prospective mother-in-law on his hands.

The second double bill of the day started with They Won’t Believe Me, a relatively big-budget noir that was, for me, the weakest of the four (those sitting near me didn’t agree). There’s no real insanity here–just a weak man (Robert Young) who can’t help cheating on his rich wife–with potentially fatal consequences. His character wasn’t very bright, but the plot required him to do one thing so stupid that I couldn’t believe it even from him.

But the festival billed that movie with Don’t Bother To Knock, so all is forgiven. Marilyn Monroe, in one of her first starring roles, plays a babysitter who really should not be trusted with a child. She shouldn’t be trusted with a grown man like Richard Widmark, either. Monroe gives one of her best performances, even if it’s a little over the top, as a troubled young woman trying to hold onto the last shreds of her sanity…but not trying too hard. Anne Bancroft appears in her first movie role.

A Weekend in Black and White, Part 1: Nuremberg

I saw five movies theatrically over Friday and Saturday, all of them in black and white.

I started Friday night with a screening at the Shattuck of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. The director’s daughter, Sandra Schulberg, who also oversaw the restoration of this 1946 documentary, spoke before and after the screening.

Her father, Stuart Schulberg, made Nuremburg for the US Government, to show to German audiences as part of the de-Nazification campaign. It intercuts footage from the famous trials with older footage of Nazi atrocities. (And yes, Stuart Schulberg was the brother of the great writer and stool pigeon Bud Schulberg.)

Re-release trailer

If you’re looking for a great, insightful, and emotionally effective documentary about the Third Reich or the Holocaust, this isn’t it. It tries to cover too much in 78 minutes, has a monotone feel, and is clearly bending over to avoid criticizing our wartime allies for their mistakes in trying to appease Hitler.

But it has the attraction of something that was, in its time, fresh. This was made for an audience that still had to be told what had happened in those "showers." That rawness makes it fascinating in the way that films from the 1890s are fascinating–you’re watching a now-common sight that was once a first-time experience.

There was something else: This film kept reminding me of recent events involving my own county. It was, after all, a trial of government leaders who had performed war crimes and crimes against the peace, and who thought they were invulnerable. There’s a moment when the narrator quotes a high Nazi official–a defendant in the trial–about the irrelevant Geneva Conventions. No one used the word quaint, but I thought it.

I wasn’t the only one who had that reaction. When she talked after the film, Schulberg made it clear that this was the movie’s "Lesson for Today." Then she brought up Daniel Ellsberg to drive home the point. The United States officially considers itself exempt from all accusations of war crimes, and while our atrocities don’t match those of the Nazis, they still require our attention. And a fair trial.

I’ll tell you about my Saturday experiences in another post.

What’s Screening: January 21 – 27

Noir City opens Friday night and runs through the week.

A The Thief of Bagdad (1940 version), Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. One of the greatest fantasy adventures ever made, thiefbagdad1940and made decades before Star Wars clones glutted the market. The special effects lack today’s realism, but they still pack an emotional punch (my daughter, when she was young, found this giant spider scarier than the ones in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings). The sets are magnificent, the dialog enchanting, and the story’s randomness gives it a true Arabian Nights flavor. And all in glorious Technicolor. Part of the series and class Film 50: History of Cinema, which focuses on fantasy films this season.

A The 400 Blows, Roxie, Friday. François Truffaut helped launch the400blowsFrench New Wave and modern cinema with this tale of a rebellious boy on the cusp to adolescence. Shot on a very low budget, it follows young Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud in the first of six films playing this role) as he cuts school, gets in trouble, discovers his parents’ marital problems, and refuses to fit in. Set to a brilliant jazz score, The 400 Blows captures the exhilaration and the horror (mostly the horror) of being 13. Part of a series of early films by Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

B+ Sorry, Wrong Number, Castro, Monday, 9:30 (complete show starts at 7:30). An invalid (Barbara Stanwyck), heavily dependent on her phone, accidentally hears some men on a party line plotting a murder. Things are going to turn very ugly in this tight and effective expansion of a 22-minute radio play into a feature-length thriller. Co-starring a shockingly young Burt Lancaster as her husband. On a double-bill with The Lady Gambles, which I haven’t seen. (I would like to point out, however, that something called The Lady Gambles really should be on a double bill with The Lady Vanishes, while another Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder should play with Sorry, Wrong Number.) Part of Noir City.

B Blackmail, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie was alsoblackmail his last silent –making two versions was common practice in 1929. I’ve seem both; the silent one (which the PFA is screening) is better. A young woman commits an indiscretion, putting her in a situation where she has to kill a man in self defense. A witness sees this act as a ticket to comfort. This is Hitchcock in an incubator, preparing to blossom a few years later into the master of suspense. By the way, am I the only one who thinks Donald Calthrop, who plays the blackmailer, is a dead ringer for Kenneth Branagh? Part of the series Suspicion: The Films of Claude Chabrol and Alfred Hitchcock. Accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano.