Patrick Barlow, actor, comedian, playwright – on his picture of Jesus from Pasolini’s film, the Gospel of Matthew
GB Tell me why you chose this?
PB Well the Gospel of Matthew is a work of perfect beauty in itself. Full of exquisite moments of perfect beauty. But my favourite is this moment, the moment Jesus smiles. Pasolini chose a non-professional architecture student with dark burning eyes called Enrique Irazoqui. He said he’d only do the film if Pasolini agreed to support his left-wing anti-fascist group. So Pasolini said. “Yep, I’m your man. Come and do Jesus.” So Irazoqui brings a real revolutionary intensity to Jesus. His message is urgent, like ‘Listen to this, this is the last chance you get!’ and he seems to know he only has a couple of years before the crucifixion. He’s got to get his message across – the whole gospel in other words! – and delivers all these well-know words in near-rage at a furious break-neck speed. He’s almost constantly angry, which is fantastic, especially when he’s railing at the hypocritical sneering scribes and Pharisees or the clumsy doubting disciples. And then there’s this moment. Just before he’s arrested. When the children run up to him, wreathed in smiles and giggles, and the stupid disciples try to stop the children. ‘Don’t bother the Master!’ And Jesus snaps at them and says ‘Let the children come!’ And then this little toothless boy who’s clearly not even an actor suddenly charges up to him and makes him smile. No, more than smiles. Jesus spontaneously uncontrollably grins. And it’s not just the character but also the actor and it’s so real. It’s not a sexy smile. It’s a beautiful smile of love. And we see this furious man transformed, more than transformed, transfigured. Which is his whole message actually. That’s what’s beautiful about it.
GB Do you believe in the real Jesus?
PB That’s a really difficult question. I was brought up as a Church of England Christian and I was very obsessed by it when I was little. When I was 12 or 13 I was convinced I wanted to be a priest or a missionary, but then I went to university and became a bit atheist and intellectual about everything. But since then I’ve opened to a more spiritual attitude. I’m interested in Buddhism, Quakerism, Native American earth religion and all sorts of stuff like that. But anything fundamentalist I can’t bear, whatever the religion.
GB So do you think the ideas from the gospels, like the meek inheriting the earth, are beautiful ideas?
PB Yes absolutely. Well I’m not sure about the word meek, though I think it means those with nothing doesn’t it? So yes Jesus’s broadly humanist, socialist message is a beautiful and important one. I’m very moved by the simplicity of it. But also that it’s so uncompromising. I’m very attracted to uncompromising people like Jesus or Ghandi or St Francis.
GB So what makes you want to make comedy of these stories?
PB Because it’s a way to get people to listen to it. I could start talking seriously about the wonderful message of love and everyone would glaze over. So I try to slip in a message while people are laughing. I’m not interested if there’s no deeper message though.
GB Do you think people would sit through a film like Pasolini’s now?
PB Well yes they do. It’s just come out again in arty cinemas and the reviews and reactions are just as awe-struck. People laugh at the old Hollywood versions of Jesus now, where he’s soft-spoken in his pure white robe and neatly trimmed beard with John Wayne at the foot of the cross intoning his ‘Truly this was the son of Gaad!’ line. But Pasolini’s version brought us a completely new version, a true version somehow, of the story and the man. He pulled no punches at all, he didn’t try and sugar the pill, but gave us something close – I believe – to how Jesus might have been. It’s interesting that Jesus says nothing against being gay or being female priests, or gay priests or makes any pronouncements on any of the current controversies that drive so many people mad. Jesus has nothing to say about any of this. All of that’s come from the sanctimonious nonsense of the church
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
PB All I can say is that there’s an area inside that comes alight in the face of beauty. It’s like a religious feeling. When Jesus smiles at these children it’s such a perfect moment. It’s like falling in love, not with the person, but with the hope of something beautiful. It’s like relaxing into something.