Pasolini: The Gospel According to Matthew

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The story of the Nativity is one of uncertainty: A teenage girl is told she’s to become a mother. Her fiancé is not the father. Together, they then have to travel to his hometown in order to participate in a bureaucratic census — one that will determine taxation. In this moment, after an 80-mile journey on foot, with no room for them to stay in town as two peasants, she goes into labor. They find some hospitality and a trace of humanity. And then the real work, the work of being parents, begins. Not only that, but Mary is told by the shepherds that her son will be the savior — a prophesy that according to Luke she “kept in her heart” and “pondered often.”

Having grown up in Christianity but not strictly a believer, I find this story fascinating to examine time and again with each Christmas season. Effectively the origin story of Christianity, it’s a fairly short couple of verses in the Bible. There’s little detail supporting a narrative that has come to dominate the holiday season. Which is also one of the reasons I love the opening to Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew.

In a near-wordless first 5 minutes, Pasolini depicts Joseph learning of Mary’s pregnancy, abandoning her, and then hearing the divine revelation to go with her because her pregnancy is an act of God. But the details that we can get from a multisensory art form like film mean that we see a deeper story. We see Joseph unable to comprehend the situation and his rejection of it outright. But we also see Margherita Caruso as Mary, a 14-year-old beatific wonder with the story of abandonment and certainty that plays out in her gaze. Abandonment by Joseph, but certainty in what’s to come. Even with her heavy-lidded gaze at Joseph as he leaves, which suggests despair, her lips suggest that she may not know what exactly will happen next, but has faith in things working out as they work out.

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When Joseph returns, Mary’s face lights up, but there isn’t as much surprise as there is benediction. She has no control over the situation, but isn’t allowing that discomfort, that fear, that sense of threat, take the wheel.

We’re obsessed with knowledge as humans. We want to know how it will all turn out. We think we know how things are, or we think we ought to know the answers to things — and feel less-than for not knowing everything (just as we also chastise those who have an answer for everything). As much as we’ve heard the same stories and narratives play out since we were children (such as the one about the baby born in a manger to a virgin mother), we can’t say for certain that we know how anything actually is. We’re more looking for the hope amid the doubt, or trying to find an answer versus loving the question.

What happens if we’re able to say “I don’t know”? What if we can live without knowledge? Would it be terrifying? Sure. But could we also keep in our head the image of Margherita Caruso, staring out into the distance, knowing that she doesn’t know all that will unfold, but accepting that despite this things will nevertheless continue to unfold?

Today’s Contemplation

Road blocks happen. Flights and trains are delayed or cancelled. The unexpected continues to come up even when on vacation. What happens if, rather than trying to control these variables, you surrender to them? What happens if you say “I don’t know” in between coming up with answers? This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try for solutions to setbacks, but what happens when you loosen your grip around trying to find the ideal solution, thereby focusing on what you can control and releasing whatever you can’t?