04/02/2014 09:24 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

The Gospel According to Pasolini

As a prelude to the president's meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican this week, the Sunday New York Times ran an intriguing article about Barack Obama's interactions with the black Catholic community in Chicago at a time when he was still developing his credentials as a community organizer and activist. Although Obama was not baptized Catholic, at the age of 6 his mother, Ann Dunham, did enroll him briefly in a Catholic elementary school in Jakarta, Indonesia (coincidentally called Santo Franciskus Asisi), and occasionally took him to mass, which he apparently found boring. Despite this minimal exposure, the president seems to have felt an affinity for the social justice teachings of Jesus -- which, after all, are contained in the same gospels read by Protestant congregations like Trinity United Church of Christ to which he belonged.

This is relevant because Pope Francis has shifted the emphasis in Roman Catholic preaching away from denouncing sin and sexuality and toward embracing the social justice teachings found in those gospels, especially the Gospel of Matthew. Although neither man appears to be making radical changes in social policy, their recent statements do augur a new direction. Some liberal groups like have applauded all this talk about the primacy of social justice, saying it has always been the primary message of Christianity. The entire discussion has brought to mind what I consider the finest, most theologically and textually accurate film rendition of the life of Christ, first released 50 years ago. The Gospel According to Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo), was made in 1964 by the rising Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and released in the U.S. two years later, when I first saw it in a Manhattan theater. Besides being a filmmaker, Pasolini was a noted poet, novelist, essayist, and perhaps Italy's leading intellectual. He was also a Marxist, an atheist, and gay, a pungent combination that put him at odds with not only the Catholic church, but also the Italian government and the Italian Communist Party, which expelled him for his sexual proclivities (specifically over charges that he had sexual relations with his male students).

The multitalented Pasolini had broken into film by writing or contributing to screenplays for a number of movies, including Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita. The assistant director on his first film, Accattone, was Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor). Before directing Il Vangelo, Pasolini had contributed a short film to an anthology movie from 1963 named RoGoPaG (from the surnames of its four directors: Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pasolini, and Ugo Gregoretti).

The main character in Pasolini's segment of that film, called "La Ricotta," is Stracci ("Rags"), a slum-dweller working as an extra on a film about the life of Christ, mostly for the free lunch. After the pet dog of the leading actress eats his lunch, Stracci sells the dog to a passerby for enough money to buy a huge amount of ricotta cheese, which he immediately devours. Called back onto the set to play one of the thieves crucified with Christ, he suffers a fatal bout of indigestion during the filming of the Crucifixion. The film-within-a-film's director is played by Orson Welles in an intended self-parody of Pasolini. Apparently the irony was lost on the Italian authorities, who saw Stracci's death on the cross from indigestion as an "an outrage against the established religion," and brought Pasolini up on charges. He received a three-month suspended sentence that was reversed on appeal, and the film was released with major cuts. But in its original version, La Ricotta shows both Pasolini's contempt for the institutional church of Rome and his admiration for the social teachings of Jesus, something he acknowledged at the time.

After the bombastic Hollywood star vehicle of The Greatest Story Ever Told, released the previous year, Pasolini's use of non-actors (including his own mother as the aging mother of Jesus) and settings in the barren, impoverished landscape of Southern Italy placed its focus squarely on the sayings of Jesus. I don't think I realized when I first saw the film how fierce Pasolini's Jesus sounds, raging at the "brood of vipers" and "hypocrites," the rich and powerful who were oppressing the common people of his day. Enrique Irazoqui, who plays Jesus, was a Catalan economics student, the son of a Basque father and Jewish mother, and a Marxist as well. His face is riveting in a way unlike any other portrayer of Jesus I've ever seen. Absent the conventional long hair that appears to have been a Renaissance fantasy, Irazoqui has the swarthy Mediterranean features that are so much more authentic-looking than the usual handsome, Teutonic, often blond Christ of film and sentimental Christian art. Indeed, close-ups of all the characters punctuate the film from the opening shots of a befuddled Joseph who has just learned that his betrothed is pregnant; their craggy faces, rough skin, and rotting teeth are thrust lovingly into our awareness as if we are seeing them through the eyes of Jesus. The entire film was shot in the same rural region of Southern Italy (Matera, not far from where both my father and mother were born) in which Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ decades later, but Pasolini captures more of the hardscrabble life of the peasants living in what could easily be first-century Judea. Pasolini said that he set out to tell the story of Jesus from the point of view of a believer, but after seeing the final film, he acknowledged that he had made it "from my own point of view."

When Pasolini was asked at a press conference in 1966 why he, an unbeliever, had made a film that dealt sympathetically with religious themes, he replied, "If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief." The film's opening credits include a dedication "to the dear, joyous, familiar memory of Pope John XXIII." Pasolini had accepted the pope's invitation for a new dialogue with non-Catholic artists, and subsequently visited the town of Assisi to attend a seminar at a monastery there. Stuck in his hotel room because of traffic jams, he read a copy of the New Testament that he found there, including all four Gospels, and that was the genesis of his film. Unfortunately Pope John died before the film was released, but Pasolini felt gratitude to the pope, and so dedicated the film to his memory.

John XXIII was apparently the kind of earthy, open-minded pope Pasolini could relate to despite his distrust of organized religion. Whether he would have felt the same way about Pope Francis is an open question. An even more significant question is whether Francis will leave the kind of indelible mark on the papacy that Pope John did.