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Translation as De-canonization: Matthew's Gospel According to Pasolini.

To the memory of Paul Hessert

The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition....And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. (1)

The canon of scriptures was created by the emerging, imperial Christian Church, beginning in the fourth century C.E., in order to secure and defend property of the Church -- the scriptures and the story that they told -- against its enemies: heretics, Jews, and pagans. The canon was used by the Church, the new Israel, to establish its claim to partake in the continuation of God's covenant with the old Israel (promises made and fulfilled in the Old and New Testaments). It is thus a profoundly ideological device. The semiotic operation of the canon was supposed to control the understanding of the included texts, to establish an authorized and complete intertextual network that would enable the Bible (in the right hands) to speak for itself.

That the canon has never worked very well is made clear by a long history of theological disputes, heresy trials, and religious wars. However, this Christian canon of scriptures barely functions at all in the world today. The semiotic machine that is the Bible has broken down. The meaning and authority of the biblical texts are in jeopardy, and each of them sinks or floats in contemporary secular culture like any other non-canonical text. One measure of the mordant status of the biblical canon is the freedom with which popular mass media translate and recycle formerly canonical texts, freeing them from traditional theological hermeneutics. (2) Texts that include language, themes, and images from the Bible appear in countless other books, as well as movies and other works of popular culture. Each of these new texts offers a rewriting of the Bible that in turn implies a different reading, a reading that liberates the biblical text from its canonical context. This production of non-canonical biblical texts can be painful and violent and sometimes even dangerous.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's film, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, (3) an example of this rewriting. Unlike most other "Jesus films," which draw upon implicit canonical understandings of the narrative material (often in the form of sentimental piety) in order to freely rearrange the texts, Pasolini does not play fast and loose with the text of Matthew's gospel. Instead, he simply lifts the entire story of Matthew out of the Bible, and while this might seem quite respectful of the gospel text itself, it is not at all respectful of the canon. Pasolini's Matthew de-sanctifies the biblical Matthew by quoting it whole, and as though it were isolated from the rest of the Bible. Indeed, the title of the English version of the movie unfortunately, and against Pasolini's own wishes, (4) introduces the word "Saint" that does not appear in the Italian title, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo. Matthew can only be a saint according to the canon.

Pasolini's film "translates" the gospel, moving it from one "location" to another. It offers an instance of what Roman Jakobson calls intersemiotic translation -- that is, a "transmutation" or "interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems." (5) The nonverbal sign system is here constituted by the medium of cinema, but since cinema is not a purely nonverbal medium, Pasolini's movie is not a purely intersemiotic translation. The film also translates the written Italian words of the already-translated gospel into the spoken Italian words of the movie's actors, in a nearly word by word representation of dialogue from Matthew's story. Furthermore, for those (including myself) who do not know Italian, the English subtitles also translate -- interlingually, in Jakobson's terminology -- the spoken Italian words of the actors into written English words.

This film thus offers a curious instance of what Walter Benjamin calls "literal translation." Indeed, Benjamin's ideal of literal translation is the interlinear translation of the scriptures, in which two texts stand alongside one another, word by word. (6) In Pasolini's Matthew, this interlinearity is most fully realized in the (often nearly illegible) written subtitles that appear on screen at the same time as the Italian words are spoken. (In the dubbed version of the movie, of course, this problem does not occur.) These two texts barely touch one another, like "a tangent touches a the infinitely small point of the sense," (7) and they make manifest the intersemiotic tension between the respective media.

Pasolini's Matthew is also what Benjamin calls a mechanical reproduction of a work of art. (8) In it, the verbal signs consist of the printed text of an Italian translation of Matthew's gospel, which is itself a mechanical reproduction of a handwritten manuscript. (9) The written text of a book is passive and the reader treats it however she will, but the moving picture dominates the viewer for the moment, and she must either let it have its way, or reject it altogether. (10) The text that forms the subtitles for the English translation of Pasolini's film is both written text and moving image at once, and thus it is not "scripture." Pasolini has created a non-scriptural gospel of Matthew. Whenever it mentions "the scriptures," the movie necessarily refers to a different medium. In addition, when the subtitles fail, the viewer who knows no Italian is presented with "a language completely devoid of any kind of meaning function,...pure signifier,...paradoxical in the extreme." (11) Insofar as the movie frees Ma tthew's text from meaning -- from "the scriptures" -- it liberates Matthew from canonical control.

Although it is in the tension between the subtitles and the speaking images that literal translation most evidently happens in this movie, by extension, and in a more complex way, the entire film translates the written gospel "literally." (12) Benjamin argues that the desire for meaning is an obstacle to translation, and that "translation must in large measure refrain from wanting to communicate something, from rendering the sense. (13) Instead of transferring meaning, and indeed quite like his concept of the mechanical reproduction of the work of art, literal translation "reactivates the object reproduced." Like mechanical reproduction, literal translation re-creates the source text and transforms it into an "original." The translation enables us to see the text in ways that we hadn't been able to, before it was translated. It reveals the text and critiques it.

There is gain and loss in any translation, both for the signifier and for the signified. Like any reading, a translation is an ideological act, an act of eisegesis. In intersemiotic translation, this betrayal of the source text arises from differences in the signifying potential of the respective media. Pasolini uses the interlinear sequence of translated words from Matthew's gospel as a matrix in which to distribute diegetic elements of the story. Certain consequences of this are inescapable. Diegetic elements are represented through nonverbal sign systems for which the translation must be considerably less than literal. The film necessarily gives flesh and blood to characters and scenes that we imagine for ourselves when we read the written text. (14) Numerous visual details do not appear in the written gospel but stand out in the movie. Among these are the child Jesus held in Joseph's arms, the androgynous angel, James and John running along the beach drying a fishing net, and Salome playing with her jacks just before she dances.

Pasolini's camera "speaks" its own highly articulate language, (15) featuring a mix of intense frontal close-ups (faces of Jesus, the disciples, and others) with striking cinema verite long shots (the baptism, the two trials), and he draws on familiar European artistic traditions. However, he also resists those traditions, as Naomi Greene has demonstrated, (16) giving to the film a quasi-documentary quality. The written text tells us nothing about what Jesus, Mary, or Judas look like, and the film's concrete depictions of human bodies are always at variance with our own imaginings. Several film critics even complained about the appearance of the actor (Enrique Irazoqui) who plays Jesus, apparently because they thought he didn't look like Jesus should. He is at once less rugged than John the Baptist (played by Mario Socrate) and less serene than the angel (played by Rossana Di Rocco).

Perhaps more significantly, what appear to be summary statements of repeated actions in the written text, such as Matthew 4:23-25, either must be depicted as specific events in the film, as when Jesus cures a tower filled with demoniacs, or else they cannot be depicted at all. Even through the mere juxtaposition of visual images with spoken words -- especially the words of Jesus -- the movie rewrites the gospel. Jesus picks up a child as he says, "my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:30), although no children appear in the Matthean context. He weeps after the execution of John the Baptist (cf. 14:12-13). These correspondences are not coincidental.

In addition, sudden shifts of scene and other gaps in the flow of narration that are usually ignored by readers of the canonical text appear as disruptions in the movie. Some transitions are translated into significant juxtapositions, such as the image of John the Baptist in prison as a voiceover recites the words of Isaiah 9:2 quoted in Matthew 4:15-16. At these points, the film (like any translation) does not merely re-present the gospel, but it also interprets it. Other transitions in the written narrative, such as "when he heard that John had been betrayed" or "when he came into Capernaum," disappear entirely in the film. When the written narrative transitions have been silenced by the film, or when there are no written transitions in the first place, the film makes the viewer aware of the incoherence of Matthew's story, the narrative failures that the ideological functioning of the canon seeks to cover up, or to fill in. (17)

The biblical text itself can only appear in the film in the words of Jesus and other characters, or in rare narratorial voice-overs. These words have been scarcely altered from the written text, although sometimes what is indirect quotation in the text becomes direct quotation in the movie. Voice-over narration reproduces some of Matthew's quotations from the Old Testament, such as Jeremiah's words about Rachel weeping during the slaughter of the innocents scene (Matt. 2:17-18, quoting Jer. 31:15). Indeed, there are very few words in The Gospel According to St. Matthew that are not either scriptural citations or the spoken words of characters, and these are nearly always taken directly from the written gospel of Matthew. Two exceptions are noted here. First, in the film, Jesus speaks aloud the names of the twelve disciples, but in the written text, the narrator lists the names (Matt. 10:2-4). Second, in the film, when Judas returns the betrayal money to the chief priests, the priests utter the words that com pose the narrator's comment about the Field of Blood in Matthew 27:7-8. Generally, however, narrator's comments such as these are absent from the movie.

Pasolini's Matthew generally follows the sequence of the spoken and cited words in Matthew's gospel. As Bart Testa argues, even the film's alterations to the written text "bring the evangelist's narrative segmentation to the fore." (18) This mimetic interlinearity results in strange, dreamlike scenes, such as the encounters early on between Joseph and Mary, in which no word is spoken. Likewise, the disciples are for the most part silent. These silences highlight the articulation of diegesis and mimesis in Matthew's "laconic" story. (19) Indeed, many of the elements for which the movie has been criticized--for example, the isolation and "distance" of Jesus from his followers, or the silence and anonymity of the crowds - also characterize the biblical gospel. We want our directors to produce smooth, "novelistic" Jesus movies, that require no particular effort to view, like Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, just as we want a Bible that speaks clearly with a harmonious voice. In neither case does Pasolini o blige us. Several reviewers have noted Pasolini's strong interest in the poetry of Matthew's text, and the movie's close following of the gospel text heightens the viewer's awareness of its writerly incoherencies.

There are, however, several exceptions to the film's "interlinearity" with the written text, and they produce significant alterations of the literal sequence. (20) For example, when Jesus and his disciples withdraw after the death of John the Baptist, a voice-over speaks words that include Isaiah 14:31 ("Wail, O gate; cry, O city; melt in fear, 0 Philistia, all of you! For smoke comes out of the north, and there is no straggler in his ranks" [Revised Standard Version]), a text that does not seem especially relevant to the story and moreover, that is not cited in Matthew. Perhaps more important, in Matthew 13:14-15 -- that is, well before his crucifixion--Jesus utters the words of Isaiah 6:9-10 in somewhat modified form: "You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with thei r heart, and turn for me to heal them." In the film, these words are spoken over a momentarily blank screen at the moment of Jesus's death. Are they then to be taken as Jesus's last words? Or is someone else speaking here? Isaiah? God? Pasolini?

Another example appears in the "stupendous, interminable" (21) Sermon on the Mount, which occurs in the film out of the sequence of the written text. In the written gospel, the sermon takes the form of a lengthy series of loosely related sayings by Jesus that run throughout the entirety of Matthew 5, 6, and 7. (22) Although the gospel of Matthew explicitly describes this material as "sayings" or "words" (logo us, 7:24, 26, 28), the text presents it as a single long speech--indeed, Jesus's longest uninterrupted speech in any of the synoptic gospels. These words are often interpreted as a continuous speech (or sermon), even though many scholars are suspicious that this continuity is more the result of editorial activity on the part of Matthew's author than of any historical accuracy.

Pasolini's film rendition of the sermon highlights this uncertainty about the sayings' context, presenting most of the sermon through a series of head shots of Jesus speaking, but varying the background sky: night, day, storm clouds, lightning, and wind. Only Jesus's head and the sky behind it are visible throughout the sermon, and it is the changes in the sky that draw the viewer's attention. The resulting images suggest both a single, extraordinarily long speech event (lasting several days) as well as a variable string of sayings that were repeated over and over again on different occasions. The effect is disconcerting: Pasolini defamiliarizes the Sermon on the Mount without changing it!

Another type of departure from the written text appears in the movie s soundtrack. The written text cannot speak itself, and the actor's voices, like the images of their bodies, give it a physical dimension that writing alone can never achieve. There are long silences in this movie, and these are accentuated by occasional background noises, such as the neighing of a horse, the cries of demoniacs, the screams of crucified men, or the laughter of children. I find much of the musical accompaniment to this film distracting, as it often spiritualizes the story and contextualizes the visual images to encourage a profound emotional response. However, there are several noteworthy exceptions. Odetta's mournful rendition of the blues classic, "Motherless Child," seems especially appropriate to Pasolini's all-too-human, earthy Jesus, even though he is neither motherless nor far from home. Another blues number, "My Oh My," also suits the film well. The rich African harmonies of the Missa Luba (which often sound at parti cularly intense moments in the film) defamiliarize the traditional Latin texts and turn them into a cry for liberation. Unlike some of the other musical selections, these musical intertexts reinforce the film's suggestion that the relation between Jesus and the institutions of imperial Christianity, including the canon, is at best highly problematical. (23)

The juxtaposition of various and quite different musical forms in the soundtrack also produces a curious dissonance. Perhaps it expresses Pasolini's fascination with the tension between what he called the "prehistoric" and the world of history. Nevertheless, this dissonance also has something to do with Pasolini's translation of the gospel of Matthew. Once again the differing media strain against each other in ways that raise questions and that encourage the viewer--as any literal translation will -- to return once again to the source text.

No translation is ever complete. The selection of possible meanings to be excluded or included is always ideological, and when it comes to Jesus movies, always a matter of controversy. Pasolini has not shown us everything that is in Matthew's story, nor could he in a movie that lasts only 136 minutes. There are few miracles and fewer parables. Much could be made of these omissions. However, the film also shows us more than any written text could. Pasolini's Jesus is not the anti-Jewish Jew of the written gospel. Despite the movie's inclusion of the explicit "hypocrites" sayings from Matthew 23, his opponents are not so much specifically Jewish Pharisees and scribes as they are the bureaucrats, owners, and bosses of every age and culture. (24) The movie's Jesus is arguably less supernatural, and more political, than the written gospel's character. In addition, this Jesus is not averse to violence (cf. Matt. 11:12), and he shows a distinct preference for the poor. He is not a Cynic philosopher, as many contemporary New Testament scholars would argue, but rathe r an apocalyptic preacher.

However, Pasolini's Jesus does not preach pie-in-the-sky escapism, but rather down-to-earth revolution. He is more concerned with social oppression than he is with individual sin. (25) He is not interested in contemplating the world, or in fleeing it, but rather in changing it. If Matthew's Jesus had been more like that, how different would things be today! Could such a version of Matthew's gospel ever have made it into the biblical canon? Probably not. Given Pasolini's own beliefs, the movie s emphasis on the political, human side of Jesus is hardly surprising. But is it not also possible that the writings of Luke, John, and Paul (26) have managed to neutralize, through their canonical proximity in the New Testament, the human, political activity and teaching of Matthew's Jesus? What would this imply about the biblical canon's responsibility for anti-Semitism, or for class oppression? Pasolini here shows us what Matthew might look like outside of the canon. Perhaps Matthew's Jesus is indeed Matthew's Jesus, and we are only able to see this now through Pasolini's lens.

There is little sentimental piety in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, unlike the Hollywood tradition of Jesus movies, although there is a kind of sentimentalizing of the peasants. It may not be a coincidence that there are also few special effects in the film, with the notable exception of the walking on the sea episode. This is an ideological move, an attempt to create a sense of realism, but also a degree of mystery, (27) since special effects often tend to de-mystify the uncanny. Miracles happen suddenly, in the blink of the montage cut. The otherwise earthly looking angel also appears and disappears abruptly. A sudden receding of the camera suggests that something has happened at Jesus's baptism while the voice-over speaks, "this is my beloved Son" (Matt. 3:17). However, whose voice is speaking? By removing the gospel from the canon, the movie retrieves the deep ambiguity of this scene -- and even more so, since unlike the written text it offers no opened skies and no dove, no descending Spirit (3:16 ). In addition, there is no transfiguration scene in the movie, and the crowds that rush to see the risen Jesus at the end belong more to Marxist neo-realism than they do to Christian iconography.

There is no point in asking whether Pasolini's film depicts "the historical Jesus," that dream of Western modernism. Does the movie give us Matthew's Jesus? That question is unanswerable, for different readers will see different Jesuses in Matthew. Is Pasolini's Jesus a Marxist Jesus, and perhaps also a gay Jesus, as we might expect? In her book on Pasolini, Pia Friedrich argues that "[t]he autobiographical component in the figure of Christ, radically 'diverse' in that he is socially heretical, inflexible, and vehement, is evident." (28) Indeed, the role of the aged Mary, Jesus's mother, is played by Pasolini's own mother, Susanna! Pasolini's film gives us a reading of Matthew that allows questions such as these to be entertained, and perhaps even affirmed, but without simultaneously ruling out other possibilities, and even their opposites.

The movie becomes a litmus test of the viewer's preconceptions of Matthew's story. Could anyone say that she "believes" Pasolini's Matthew in the way that people say that they "believe" the Bible? Conversely, does familiarity with the written gospel of Matthew help the viewer understand The Gospel According to St. Matthew any better? Would we understand Pasolini's film at all if we didn't already "know" Matthew's gospel? To push this point even further, would we be able to understand Matthew, or indeed any of the biblical gospels, if we didn't already know "the story of Jesus"? Our ideological understanding of "how the story goes" is in this case inevitably a theological preunderstanding, for which the Christian canon plays a determining role (whether we are Christians or not). Such understanding affects and determines even the most serious scholarly analyses of the texts, both biblical and cinematic.

Pasolini did not de-canonize the gospel of Matthew. That process began long ago, at least as far back as the beginnings of print culture in the Renaissance, and it has been growing and accelerating ever since. (29) Matthew's gospel was already beyond the Christian canon when it attracted this filmmaker's attention--indeed, otherwise, it would not have attracted his attention. What Pasolini's film does is help its viewers to see a new Matthew, a text that continues to live outside of the control formerly provided by the Christian Bible. Unlike most Jesus movies, The Gospel According to St. Matthew frees Matthew's story from its biblical captivity---and it releases a revolutionary gospel, a materialistic Matthew, from within the canonical security of Christian ideology. (30)

George Aichele is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Adrian College, Adrian, Michigan. He is author of The Control of Biblical Meaning: Canon as Semiotic Mechanism (Trinity Press International), editor of Culture, Entertainment, and the Bible (Sheffield Academic Press), and a co-author of The Postmodern Bible (Yale University Press).


(1.) Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 221.

(2.) See further George Aichele, The Control of Biblical Meaning: Canon as Semiotic Mechanism (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2001), especially the Conclusion. See also the articles in George Aichele and Richard Walsh, eds., Screening Scripture (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2002).

(3.) I refer in this article to the English subtitled version of II Vangelo Secondo Matteo (Rome: Arco Film S.r.L., 1964).

(4.) Pia Friedrich, Pier Paolo Pasolini (Boston: Twain Publishers, 1982), 125, n. 15. The selective capitalizing of certain nouns (such as "Kingdom" and "Heaven") in the film's subtitles also tends to stress a dogmatic dimension that is less emphatic in the spoken dialogue.

(5.) Language and Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1987), 429, Jakobson's emphasis.

(6.) Illuminations, 82.

(7.) Ibid., 80.

(8.) Ibid., 217-51. For those who access this movie on videotape or digital disc, or by means of a TV channel, the video presentation has also "translated" the film into yet another medium. Thus there are many different translations at work here, all at once.

(9.) On printing as a technology of reproduction, see Benjamin, Illuminations, 219, as well as 83-109.

(10.) Ibid., 238.

(11.) Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 96-97. The film version of the entire dialogue that appears in Matthew 22:24-32 lacks subtitles, forcing the viewer who knows no Italian into precisely this situation.

(12.) Bart Testa, "To Film a Gospel... and Advent of the Theoretical Stranger" (Patrick Rumble and Bart Testa, eds., Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994], 184).

(13.) Illuminations, 78.

(14.) See Benjamin, illuminations, 246-47, n. 11, and Testa, "To Film a Gospel," 195.

(15.) Naomi Greene, Pier Poolo Pasolini: Cinema as Heresy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 121.

(16.) Ibid., 74-75.

(17.) See Greene, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 73. Testa details the stylistic correspondences between film and written gospel in "To Film a Gospel," 187-97.

(18.) "To Film a Gospel," 193.

(19.) Ibid., 182 and passim; see also 197.

(20.) See Testa, "To Film a Gospel," 206, nn. 28, 29; also Benjamin, Illuminations, 226.

(21.) Pasolini, quoted in Testa, "To Film a Gospel," 184.

(22.) Compare the material in Luke 6.

(23.) See Greene, Pier Poolo Pasolini, 76. The film is dedicated to Pope John XXIII, and according to Petri Liukkonen (see "Pier Paolo Pasolini,", 2001), it was partly financed by the Catholic Church.

(24.) See Greene, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 76. However, see also Adele Reinhartz, "Jesus in Film: Hollywood Perspectives on the Jewishness of Jesus" (, 2001).

(25.) Greene, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 77.

(26.) At the time of his death, Pasolini was preparing to make a film titled Saint Paul, which apparently would have been quite different than his Matthew See Friedrich, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 44-45; also Testa, "To Film a Gospel," 198.

(27.) In this respect, the film is curiously similar to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project.

(28.) Pier Poolo Pasolini, 21; see also Greene, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 219-20. In his own life, the "Catholic Marxist" Pasolini was perhaps as often in conflict with Italian Marxists as he was with Italian Catholics. See also Testa, "To Film a Gospel," 181.

(29.) See Aichele, The Control of Biblical Meaning, especially chapter 2.

(30.) Two notable exceptions are Terry Jones's (Monty Python's) The Life of Brian and Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal -- although whether either of these films strictly qualifies as a Jesus movie is disputed! Portions of this article were originally presented in a panel discussion of The Gospel According to St. Matthew sponsored by the Literary Aspects of the Gospels and Acts Section of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1997.
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Title Annotation:filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini
Author:Aichele, George
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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