Jefferson Market University to Screen “Greatest Movie Ever Made”

Sunday October 18, 1:30


By Norman MacAfee

Last year, the progressive Vatican of Pope Francis named Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew the greatest film about Jesus. The Life magazine review in 1966 called it “the greatest movie ever made.” In light of the pope’s September visit to the United States, I will host a screening of The Gospel According to Matthew at the Jefferson Market Library on October 18.

The Gospel According to Matthew is a central document of liberation theology. It was made in 1964 after the death of Pope John XXIII, who opened up the Catholic Church to the world. Pasolini described his film as “Christ plus 2,000 years of mythologizing,” and he used Bach, Prokofiev, Webern, Eisenstein, Piero della Francesca, the Congolese Missa Luba, and Odetta to tell the tale. The style is a kind of magic neo-realism. The characters are played by non-actors, real people: Saint Peter by a Jewish fishmonger from Rome; Jesus’ mother by Pasolini’s mother; Mary of Bethany by the novelist Natalia Ginzburg; and Jesus by a 19-year-old Spanish architecture student, Enrique Irazoqui.

Born in 1922, Pasolini was not just the major filmmaker of his generation in Italy but also its major poet. Homosexual, Marxist, anti-fascist, agnostic, novelist, playwright, painter, journalist, he was the tortured conscience of his time. He said, “You can’t have ideas like mine and expect to be left alone.” He was assassinated in 1975.

I saw The Gospel According to Matthew in 1966, the year of its US release, and have seen it dozens of times since. It changed the way I look at the world, the way I make art. Almost immediately after his murder, I began translating Pasolini’s poetry with the help of the Italian filmmaker Luciano Martinengo. It was my way of somehow keeping alive an essential artist who had been silenced. My first book was my translation of Pasolini’s poetry, published in 1982 by Random House and reissued by Farrar Straus Giroux in 1996, and still in print. My 2004 book about Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, The Gospel According to RFK, was inspired by Pasolini’s film and by Thomas Jefferson’s edition of the New Testament, in which Jefferson removed the miracles to focus on the social ideas of Jesus.

I moved to New York City on Thanksgiving Friday 1967. It was the same week that Jefferson Market Library opened, signaling the first triumph of the historic preservation movement, after the insane, inane destruction of Stanford White’s stupendous Penn Station. It is my local library and one of my three or four favorite buildings in the world. I look forward to showing this great film there.

Norman MacAfee’s books also include One Class: Selected Poems and the first complete modern edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In mid-September, the Journal of Poetics Research published his essay “The Agnostic Gospels: Matthew, Bach, Pasolini, Sellars, RFK, Kraus.”


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