Christ's Passion Gives Cave Town a Biblical Bonanza

By Popham, Peter | The Independent (London, England), April 12, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Christ's Passion Gives Cave Town a Biblical Bonanza


Popham, Peter, The Independent (London, England)


FIFTY YEARS ago, thousands of the poor in the town of Matera lived in dank limestone caves, "a spectacle of misery" as one visitor described them, the children with "the wrinkled faces of old men, emaciated by hunger, hair crawling with lice and encrusted with scabs".

The rest of Italy was racing into the future, but Matera seemed stuck in the Middle Ages.

The 15,000 cave-dwellers were eventually rehoused in flats on the outskirts. But in the town, that lost-in-time look persisted.

Matera's old town, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, consists of a steep cliff face pocked with hundreds of cave mouths, linked by precipitous winding tracks.

Mel Gibson was not the first film director to appreciate that Matera's old town looks exactly the way Jerusalem is supposed to have looked 2,000 years ago. But while other biblical films, including The Gospel According to St Matthew, have used the town as a backdrop, none did the sort of business that Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is doing. Now Matera is sitting back and waiting for the bonanza.

Visitors are given a blow-by-blow account of the gospel according to Mel, and how it looked from the front-row seats. "That's where Jesus fell under the weight of the cross; that's where he was flayed," my guide told me, his eyes shining with the memory.

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