The Gospel According to Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) | 1964
Introduced with a warm dedication to Pope John XXIII and a slew of commendations from the Catholic church, this arguably finest filming of the gospel story was directed by an openly gay, Marxist atheist.
The ancient city grew from a complex of cave dwellings, called sassi, excavated in the cliff face of a gorge of the Gravina River. That’s the almost sheer wall of houses we see repeatedly throughout the film as both ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Jerusalem’.
As homes, they were pretty rudimentary and, in the 1950s, much of the population was relocated to the newer part of the city. Since the 1980s, the sassi have been restored from their impoverished state seen in the film to become a a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a much-visited tourist area.
Since The Gospel..., Matera has been featured in Mel Gibson's very different take on the story, The Passion of the Christ; as ‘Jerusalem’ in both the 2006 remake of The Omen, with Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles, and in Timur Bekmambetov’s 2016 version of Ben Hur; as well as ‘Themyscira’ in Patty Jenkins’s 2017 Wonder Woman. You can see how much the city has now been developed when Bond (Daniel Craig) holidays here with Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) in 2021’s No Time To Die.
It’s to Matera that Joseph walks, sullen and confused by his wife’s mysterious pregnancy. There, he’s reassured by an angel that the miraculous child is destined for greatness.
The Magi are seen riding through the bustling streets of Matera as they visit King Herod on their quest to visit the newborn messiah.
Herod’s palace, seen throughout the film, is the courtyard of the Swabian castle in the town of Gioia del Colle, east of Matera in Apulia, which now houses the National Archaeological Museum, Piazza Martiri del 1799.
The devious king asks them to let him know when they find the baby so he can worship it too.
The modest cave-like home where the Magi pay homage to the child, and where the forces of Herod kill all newborn babies, is one of the sheshë, more troglodyte dwellings (somewhat similar to sassi) at the town of Barile, in the province of Potenza, in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata.
Barile was founded by Albanian refugees (known as Arbëreshë) from the Ottoman conquest, who dug the sheshë. Many in the area still speak Arbëresh, a dialect of Albanian.
As with the sassi, the sheshë too have been smartened up. They’re now used to store wine and to host cultural events.
The grown-up Christ finds John the Baptist (Mario Socrate) doing what he does, preaching repentance and baptising the faithful in the ‘River Jordan’. The tranquil setting is the Chia Waterfalls, in the Parco delle Cascate di Chia del Fosso Castello, Strada Provinciale 151 Ortano, Chia, a few miles east of Viterbo.
It might not be the mighty ‘Jordan’ but it does look wonderful. Pasolini fell in love with the area, writing that it was the most beautiful landscape in the world. He bought and restored the nearby 13th century Torre di Chia (Tower of Chia), in which he lived until his murder in 1975 (it’s also in the park, but not open except for special occasions).
Christ wanders off into a barren wilderness, where Satan appears and bids him turn the stones into bread. The dusty ground seems to smoke beneath Satan's feet and, yes, the stark landscape is the slope of Mount Etna, the tallest volcano in Europe and one of the most active. It stands on the east coast of Sicily, a two hour bus ride from Catania.
Satan’s temptations whisk Christ from place to place.
Next, they’re atop the 12th century Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore, Tuscania, a town in Viterbo, 60 miles northwest of Rome. Alongside its elaborate window, Satan urges Christ to throw himself down.
Christ is then shown a vista of boundless lands which will be given to him if he’ll bow down and worship Satan. The challenge is made in front of the crumbling Church of San Bonaventura, which stands in the ruined town of Canale Monterano, 25 miles northwest of Rome. Attacked and burned by the French Army at the end of the 18th century, Canale Monterano remains a deserted ghost town.
Clearly getting nowhere, Satan finally walks away, and Christ moves on to the shore of the ‘Sea of Galilee’, where he recruits Peter and Andrew as the first of his disciples. This is Spiaggia di Capo Colonna, the beach south of Crotone in Calabria. Sticking with the “boot” analogy, this beach stands on the “sole” of Italy.
The small, round tower among coastal sand dunes of a beach, which houses a colony of the possessed, is Torre delle Caldane, a 16th century watchtower built to keep a lookout for pirates, now in the Tor Caldara Nature Reserve, Via Ardeatina, Anzio, south of Rome.
On to ‘Capernaum’, the fortified town on a busy seafront, where friends of John the Baptist ask Christ if he is the one John has been prophesying, and where they later deliver the news of John’s execution.
'Capernaum' is Castello Aragonese, standing on the promontory of Isola Capo Rizzuto, joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway, a few miles southwest of the Capo Colonna beach location. There’s been a fortress on this site since the 5th century BCE, though the current structure dates from the 16th century.
The confrontation with the rich man, who obeys all the laws but can’t bring himself to dispose of his worldly goods, is staged in the town of Massafra, Taranto in the Apulia region. It’s also here that Jesus famously welcomes the crowd of children.
Although the town has been much modernised, with plenty of satellite dishes, you can still recognise the steps where the children gather on Via Muro, just south of Vicolo I Serra.
The entrance into ‘Jerusalem’ takes us back to Matera and the vast chasm of the Gravina Gorge which it overlooks.
Once inside the city, Jesus is horrified to witness the commercialisation of the temple and overturns the table of the money changers. The temple grounds are the courtyard of Castel del Monte, a citadel and castle, built in the 1240s for King Frederick II in Andria, back in the Apulia region of Southern Italy. This is where Christ is later grilled by the Pharisees, hoping they can trick him into saying something seditious.
The priests meet to decide Christ’s fate in the courtyard of another of King Frederick II’s constructions, the Castel Lagopesole, Avigliano, in the Basilicata region.
This is where Judas Iscariot asks for payment to deliver Christ to them, and Jesus is subsequently tried by the Sanhedrin.
The hearing before Pontius Pilate is held in one of the four circular chambers within the fortress of Barletta, a city in Apulia.
The castle, built in the 10th century by the Normans, was upgraded and enlarged under – guess who? – Frederick II.
Holy Roman Emperor Charles V added its four massive bastions in the 16th century. Restored, it now houses Barletta Civic Museum and events / conference spaces.
Jesus struggles to carry the cross through the narrow, hilly streets of Matera, and the crucifixion takes place on the hill on the opposite side of the gorge from the city.