(by Andrea Gropplero - Cinecittario: Archivio Luce)
Many believe that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, presented at the XXV Venice Film Festival in 1964, winner of a Silver Lion and three Nastri d’argento, nominated for three Academy Awards, is best film ever made about the life of Christ. Shot mostly in Matera, Pasolini initially intended to portray a Christ story without miracles or the resurrection; these scenes would be shot separately later following advice from Don Francesco Angelicchio, the director of the Centro Cattolico Cinematografico. Pasolini’s portrait of a Christ with no dogma unleashed a furious controversy, the most conservative critics upset by a story with no divine mystery, in a continuation of the reaction to his film La Ricotta (Curd Cheese) (an episode of the collective film, Ro.Go.Pa.G.) which was accused of blasphemy.Print itinerary
With The Gospel According to Matthew, Matera provided the world with a new oleographic image of Jerusalem. This fame was revived by the global success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion (2004) which was shot entirely in Matera and Cinecittà Studios.
Furrowed faces, hands calloused by labour, an ancient, primordial knowledge in their eyes. These were the characters of Pasolini’s film, played by non-professionals most of whom were residents of Matera. Christ was played by Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish trade unionist, the elderly Mary by the director’s mother, while Pasolini’s writer friends, Nathalia Ginzburg, Alfonso Gatto, Enzo Siciliano and the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, became actors for this great film. This may be what Pasolini’s Gospel intended to present: a greedy and refined desire for knowledge and a simple, solid culture, both subtle and ancient.
Ancient like faces and shapes, including the bread typical of Matera, an ingredient used in many recipes from the area and a recurring motif in Pasolini’s film, although another type of bread, produced since the beginning of time in Avigliano, plays a more important diegetical role: unleavened bread or, in this case, unleavened corn focaccia baked in the fireplace. This is the bread broken by Christ in blessing at the Last Supper.
Le ragioni che spinsero Pasolini ad amare Matera sono le stesse, da un punto di vista diametralmente opposto, che hanno spinto Levi a scrivere Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli. Carlo Levi, scrittore e pittore antifascista confinato ad Aliano, in Basilicata, nel 1935, descrive Matera così: “Nelle grotte dei Sassi si cela la capitale dei contadini, il cuore nascosto della loro antica civiltà. Chiunque veda i Sassi di Matera non può non restarne colpito tanto è espressiva e toccante la sua dolente bellezza”.
Levi recounts a country running at two different speeds: the wealthy North fighting wars in Africa and empire-building and the South, forgotten by God and the powerful. In Francesco Rosi’s film, based on Levi’s book with a magisterial performance by Gian Maria Volonté, we watch the history of a primitive and superstitious world whose deep furrows cannot be affected even by the great wisdom of the protagonist. Carlo Levi’s sister, instead, defined Matera as an “infernal crater” and the scandal provoked by the book shook national politicians into action. In 1948, Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party, was the first to arrive in the city to see the degradation, where inhabitants lived with animals, for himself. Without mincing words, he called the Sassi a “national disgrace”, a shame to be eradicated with brute force to restore dignity to the people (cit. sassidimatera.it).
In 1950, following a visit to the Sassi of Matera, the Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi tasked Emilio Colombo, a government minister who came from the area, with the preparation of a plan to reclaim the area, this eventually led to the “special law for the dispersion of the inhabitants of the Sassi di Matera” which moved 17,000 people from their homes to new housing projects built by the State nearby.
Matera, this place so “isolated from the world”, the “infernal crater” and “national disgrace” was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and acted as European Capital of Culture in 2019. The cuisine of the area certainly contributed to this success which has seen the Sassi of Matera held up as a model of environmental and social reclaiming. Poor people’s food, with an ancient appearance, such as the bread soup acquasale that Gian Maria Volonté eats in Francesco Rosi’s film with a glass of wine, most probably Aglianico, a grape originally known as Ellenico having come from Greece to Basilicata in pre-Roman times.
Francis Ford Coppola, the great Italian-American film director and producer of elegant Californian wines, has roots in the Lucania area: his grandfather Agostino left Bernalda in 1904 for the United States. Francis travelled to Bernalda for the first time in 1962 and today has restructured Palazzo Margherita into a luxury resort that attracts Hollywood stars. Francis has honorary citizenship conferred by the municipality while his daughter Sofia, herself a director and Oscar winner, opted to marry in Bernalda. Coppola has a true passion for the land of his family roots and whenever he visits Bernalda he appreciates lampascioni and gnummareddi. The former are bulbs that resemble small onions but are actually from the asparagus family, used in salads or fried and most commonly boiled and conserved in oil, their slightly sour taste making them a fantastic antipasto. A main course typical of the area and also found in many regions of Southern Italy, gnummareddi are unusual rolls made with lamb or goat innards, wrapped in intestine, marinated for hours and pan roasted.
Basilicata coast to coast (2010) was Rocco Papaleo’s first film as director, a debut that was successful with critics and public alike. It is the story of a maths teacher with a passion for music who decides to participate with his group in the Festival of Theatre and Song at Scanzano Jonico. They set off on foot to cross from the Tyrrhenian to the Ionian coast, thereby cutting across Basilicata, followed by a documentary director from a local TV station (Giovanna Mezzogiorno).
It is a voyage of the soul which will help the five protagonists (played by Rocco Papaleo, Alessandro Gassman, Max Gazzè, Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Alessio Briguglia) to find the lost sense of their lives. In addition to being a road movie, the film is also homage to Basilicata, its flavours, perfumes and humanity. Recipes actually appear as songs, with “my mother’s bread and omelette” particularly memorable. Papaleo’s mother appears in the film, she hands her son a bag of bread and omelette for the journey. This is the starting point for a thought process that Rocco Papaleo sings through, about sponz: as the hours pass, the omelette amalgamates into the slices of Matera bread. Sponz being the outer part of the omelette that transfers onto the bread making it difficult to tell where one starts and the other ends. This encapsulates probably the most intimate secret of the food from Lucania: that it manages to combine the soul of these flavours while keeping the individual ingredients separate and recognisable. To confirm this idea, we could cite recipes for many dishes that follow this principle, including lagane e ceci – pasta with chickpeas, garlic, leek and bay leaf – apparently very appreciated by the 18th century brigands of the area. On the subject of sponz, let us not forget that the Lucani invented the sausage in Roman times calling it lucanica: the provenience of its Lucanian origins described by Marcus Terenzius Varrone, Cicero, and Martial centuries before Christ.
“The second recipe from Basilicata coast to coast which, however, was cut from the film is pasta e fagioli sfritta, a dish eaten only in the area I come from because it requires zafarano sinese, a kind of paprika obtained from powdered peperoni cruschi (sundried Senise peppers)”:
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