Matera - Italian Jerusalem

Wlodzimierz Redzioch

When in 1964 Pier Paolo Pasolini, outstanding and controversial Italian poet and film director, decided to make a film based on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, he chose Matera, a provincial town in the south of Italy, in the region of Basilicata. Following Pasolini's example other directors chose Matera to make their films. The most know of them was Mel Gibson who spent several months in the historical centre of Matera. The worldwide success of 'The Passion of the Christ' made people associate the corners of the Italian town with ancient Jerusalem in the times of Christ. I went to Matera to see the places known from Gibson's 'Passion' and meet a few people who were in touch with the director during his stay there. My interviews with Nunzio Olivieri, an engineer and director of the San Domenico al Piano Hotel, when Gibson had lived, and with Fr Basilio Gavazzimi, local priest who was appointed by the diocese to contact Gibson, were especially interesting.

Sassi on the film set again

Mel Gibson entrusted a Roman company with the task of finding a suitable place for his film 'The Passion of the Christ'. It meant to find places to shoot the Way of the Cross, i.e. to find a place that would resemble the streets of Jerusalem and Golgotha. One of such places was Matera, town in southern Italy, famous for its old centre called Sassi (stones). Sassi is a district of flats, mainly consisting of one room, dug into the rock of the steep hill of the ravine (Italians call it 'gravina'), with a labyrinth of little streets and stairs. It was Sassi that was the setting of Pasolini's film about the life of Christ and that's why it was decided to show Gibson that unique place. The representative of the film producer contacted Mr Olivieri to reserve rooms for some people who were to come and see the place. The delegation flew to Bari and then they were driven to Matera. A few minutes before the arrival Olivieri learnt that the director himself arrived in Matera. Gibson went to Sassi immediately and he saw the places that his collaborators showed him. He was satisfied with the choice and made an immediate decision to make his movie there. However, the producers had a limited budget (the cost could not exceed 10 million dollars). Therefore, the owners of the hotels had to offer appropriately low prices. In fact, the whole town, including its authorities, were at the disposal of Gibson and his large crew. The director himself, his most important collaborators and main actors lived in the San Domenico al Piano, owned by Olivieri. The rest of the crew was placed in other hotels.

This charming Mel Gibson

Mr Olivieri says openly that, like most people, he did not realise how significant Gibson's stay would be and the fact that 'Passion' was filmed in the town. One of the reasons was that the American actor and director was only seen as an 'incarnated' Hollywood superman, whose stay would not leave any firm traces (it was otherwise). Gibson worked on his film over two months in Matera: from the middle of September till the end of November. It was the time of very intensive work. Fortunately, the choice of Matera was right: the district of Sassi became ancient Jerusalem and the beauty spot across the ravine became Golgotha. Sometimes the weather helped to make the film, as was the case of filming the scene of the crucifixion of Christ when it suddenly got dark and was very windy. The actors had to make great efforts and sacrifice because they were almost naked (the big fan heaters did not help). Mel Gibson won the hearts of all people by his authentic humanity and big simplicity. The only problems were the journalists who had come to Matera and the film director did not want to stop the work in order to give interviews. We should add that the work on the film was very intensive. It began at 7.00 a.m. and finished at 7.00 p.m. In order not to lose time for meals there were field kitchens. People could eat when they did not work (there was no lunch break for all people). And at the hotel a special room for Mel and his collaborators was organised. They could see the materials of each day.

Work at a dizzying pace

People could notice that a film was shot in Matera. Everywhere there were extras, dressed as Roman soldiers or Jewish citizens of Jerusalem. On Saturdays they worked only half a day (the extras received their pay and a schedule for the next week was prepared) and Sunday was a completely free day. Sometimes Gibson went to Rome for a weekend to spend time with his wife and children who were living in the capital of Italy (the director is very attached to his family). However, according to Olivieri it was Jim Caviezel that was working hardest in Gibson's crew. He played the role of Jesus. Caviezel began the day with all other people but he had to get up at about 2.00 a.m. because being made up as Jesus took about 5 hours! Moreover, when the production began the actor weighed a little too much and he had to be on a diet. At hard moments his support was Fr Angelo, priest of the local parish of Saint Roch, his spiritual father who was with him during the shooting. The hotel director told me that Gibson did not demand any special room for him; he was satisfied with a hotel room with a bathroom and a separate study next door. So two rooms were connected and the door was made in the wall that separated the rooms. Although, to tell you the truth, the director spent little time at the hotel. He went out very early (as a zealous believer he was at Mass every day and the Mass was celebrated in Latin) and he returned as the last person of the crew. The hotel restaurant was open all the time and people could eat during the night as well or early in the morning. Olivieri told me a funny story. On the first day of Gibson's stay the hotel director ordered a large dinner for Mel (in the morning Italians usually eat a cornetto and drink black or white coffee - capuchino). Mel was not satisfied because he did not get what he usually ate, namely bacon and eggs. Naturally, the next day it was different, Mel had his bacon and eggs (sometimes he ate 7-8 eggs!). During his stay in Matera Mel Gibson and the actors were besieged by hundreds of journalists and onlookers. That's why the town authorities and hotel owners built a real 'defensive wall' around the film crew.

Seldom moments of rest

Gibson was invited to various meetings every day. He almost always refused to go because he was so much absorbed by his work. Although there were some exceptions. Olivieri told me what happened to his acquaintance that lived next to the cathedral some Sunday. Gibson did not go to Rome on that Sunday and went to Mass to the cathedral. As a rule he used the side entrance to the cathedral, then got into his car and drove away. But on that occasion, the reason being wonderful weather and there was a magnificent view from the square in front of the cathedral, Gibson stopped for a moment to admire the panorama of the town. When Olivier's friend saw the director she began inviting him for a meal, using her body language because she did not know English. But Gibson drove away as if he did not notice her. But you can image how much she was astonished when exactly at 1.00 p.m. the door bell rang and the director stood in the door. Mel spent the whole afternoon with her family. First the meal was served and then Gibson 'chatted' with the hosts and played with her daughters. Although they only used body language they somehow understood one another. It was a great event for the family and for the hard working director it was an occasion to relax.
Did Matera, which had hosted journalists from all over the world and was in focus of all world media, use that unique occasion to promote the city? When I asked the inhabitants they gave a negative answer. It was true that there were more tourists but there were no religious pilgrimages at all. And moreover, most visitors come from the south of Italy, so we deal with local tourism. Some explain this lack of special interest in the city, which was the set of the films enjoying worldwide renown, by the fact that 'The Passion of the Christ' did not leave any traces in Matera. According to the agreement between the curator and the producers all elements of the film set were to be removed. It was done eagerly and today some people regret that even the crosses from Golgotha or the gates of Jerusalem, which were built in the centre, were removed. They would have reminded all people that for a few months the place was Jerusalem as we saw it in Mel Gibson's Passion.

"Niedziela" 15/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: