Andrei Bitov

We recently saw the film The Gospel According to Matthew. It was being shown to professionals—directors, actors, scriptwriters, editors. Opinion was divided: some people were deeply impressed, and others “liked it, but . . .” Such a division is normal, but the puzzling thing was that both camps, in approximately equal numbers, included people who were: wise and foolish, with taste and without, right-wing and left-wing, old and young, sincere and insincere, given to ecstasy and habitually apathetic. That is, there was no way of assigning their ecstasy or moderation according to some criterion, as one usually can: “Oh, he’s a fool,” or “Oh, he’s a swine.” Each of the camps preserved in miniature the overall makeup of the room. We would simply have left without unraveling this phenomenon, had not one of the ecstatic advocates shouted in a temper, apparently as an argument in the film’s favor, “But the Sermon on the Mount?” Now it dawned on us, and we did a few experiments to test our surmise. We approached people, and after first extracting a terrible oath that they would answer our question honestly, we asked, “Now, have you read the Gospel?” And here’s how it came out: the people in absolute ecstasy were those who had not read the Gospel. Those familiar with it responded more objectively and severely. A simple conclusion, or question, comes to mind: Which made the impression, the Gospel or the picture? the quotation or the film? The honest ones blushed and agreed that yes, it was the quotation. The dishonest ones agreed without blushing. Thus, many were first deeply impressed by a Gospel read to them in literal translation by an interpreter sitting in the dark. (Andrei Bitov, Pushkin House, trans. Susan Brownsberger, Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1998, p. 131.)

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