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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Filmmakers Antonio Andrisani and Pascal Zullino to present "Il Vangelo secondo Mattei”

It seems these days that everyone is talking about Matera. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Center, the "Sassi" (rock) neighborhoods of the southern Italian city have recently been featured in a number of high profile newspapers and travel publications including the New York TimesLonely Planet and England's The Guardian. Tourists from all over the world are lining the ancient streets curious to explore the history and stunning beauty of the unique landscape.

Monte Vulture taken from a bus going through Spinazzola in Puglia
It’s refreshing to see mainstream publications writing positive articles about Basilicata even though they are focusing predominately on Matera's recent rebirth. In the past, foreign journalists quoted the decades-old writings of Carlo Levi, declaring the region remote and difficult to reach. These days, nothing could be farther from the truth. One direct bus from Rome is all you need to reach the natural paradise of Basilicata.

The region is known for producing high quality products like olive oil, wine, beans and peppers. The popular naturally carbonated waters Sveva and Gaudianello along with their “liscia” counterpart Lilia come from the area of Monte Vulture, a dormant volcano that houses two small lakes. “I sette colli del Vulture” (The seven hills of Vulture) refers to the distinguishing peaks of the volcano, which can be seen from the neighboring region of Puglia. If you take a bus from the Rome’s Tiburtina station directly to Matera, and pay attention around the Pugliese town of Spinazzola, you will see the majestic Mount Vulture in the distance. The water and wine that come from the area of Vulture are enjoyed throughout Italy and the world. The Gaudianello brand of water is distributed by some small companies in America. It can be found at CVS pharmacies depending on availability.

There is quite a lot of irony in the fact that Basilicata produces such rich, sought-after products. The irony is in the fact that it’s still referred to as one of Italy’s poorest regions. If that’s not ironic enough, consider Basilicata’s other liquid gold: petroleum. Underneath the rich soil of Lucania is oil and lots of it. For two decades, oil companies have relentlessly been drilling the earth for every drop they can extract. Nicknamed "Little Texas", a recent report states that current production is up to a staggering 80,000 barrels a day by the chief operator in Basilicata, Eni. Read all about it right here in English on Eni's website. 

A scene from Il Vangelo secondo Mattei shows the vast countryside of Matera 
While the tourists are enjoying the beauty and tastes of the region, the majority of locals are concerned about the effects of the oil drilling on the environment. It’s a highly politicized debate because the proponents say the drilling is bringing money and jobs to the region. However, on the other side of the coin are opponents such as Italy's emerging political party Movimento 5 Stelle as well as local newspapers, which have published numerous articles on the havoc the drilling is wreaking on the environment. The reports have included allegations on emissions going into the air, alleged spills entering lakes, an increase in illnesses as well as seismic activity in the area of Val d’Agri, the site of the oil drilling. Whether the reports are accurate, the fact is that the emissions caused by the oil drilling are going into the air and the people of Basilicata are breathing that air day in and day out.

Since the beginning of our series "Basilicata: Terra di Cinema" in 2015, which features the new generation of filmmakers in the region, this issue of oil drilling has been present. So much so, that it would be disrespectful to the filmmakers to overlook it. The contemporary directors express their concerns over the oil drilling through their work but they do it ever so poetically. The latest filmmakers to take an environmental stance are Antonio Andrisani and Pascal Zullino with their feature film Il Vangelo secondo Mattei (The Gospel According to St. Matthews). The story centers on an elderly man Franco Gravela (Flavio Bucci) who is offered perhaps one last shot at his dream of acting in cinema. Those making the offer are a couple of failed directors who also need to make this film in a last ditch effort to save their faces and careers. Most of the "film inside a film" takes place on the natural, magnificent set of the Sassi of Matera with shots of the surrounding countryside and landscape. 

Antonio Andrisani (left) and Pascal Zullino in a scene from  Il Vangelo secondo Mattei 
I talked with the filmmakers and actor Flavio Bucci when they were filming in Matera in October of 2015. Check out the initial story here. After recently seeing a press copy of the film, I traveled to Italy to interview Andrisani and Zullino. In both conversations, the filmmakers talked about the theme of petroleum as well as the dreams of the protagonist. My personal interpretation of the film, having watched it with English subtitles, is a story of second chances. I did not feel the theme of petroleum to be strong, but rather cleverly and artistically on the part of the filmmakers, presented as a metaphor. I saw an elderly man get another chance at his dream. At one point, he turns down an offer to be bought out by a politician and that is where I can see the metaphor for the petroleum. Perhaps the filmmakers want to say, “You cannot put a price on our sacred land.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini and Enique Irazoqui on the set of
Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo
I met with filmmaker Antonio Andrisani in the depths of the Sassi of Matera. We talked amidst children running up and down the never-ending stairs of the Sassi and the wide-eyed, awe-inspired tourists as they took in the enchantment of the spell-binding stone structures. During our conversation, Andrisani spoke of the influence of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 film Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to StMatthew), which was also shot in the Sassi of Matera. He explained that at the time of Pasolini's assassination in November of 1975, he was working on a book titled Petrolio that was published posthumously in 1992 by the Giulio Einaudi publishing company.

So with that thought in mind, Andrisani and Zullino decided to pay a kind of tribute to Pasolini by calling the film Il Vangelo secondo Mattei (The Gospel According to St. Matthews). Pasolini's actor Enrique Irazoqui also makes a guest appearance in Andrisani and Zullino's film, a gesture which further validates the filmmakers' appreciation of their city's history in the realm of cinema. Andrisani went on to explain what I also sensed in the film. Aside from the theme of petroleum, the story is about a man, an elderly man trying to realize his dream to work in cinema even if he seems to be out of time. He said that he doesn't want the film to be a journalistic report on oil drilling. Instead, he wants to make viewers aware of the problems rather than neglecting them and pretending they don't exist. With this film, he wants to encourage people to develop a critical conscience about the issues that are important to him. 

Prior to meeting with Antonio Andrisani in the Sassi of Matera, I caught up with Pascal Zullino in the seaside town of Maratea on the other side of Basilicata. There, he was presenting the trailer for the film at the Giornate del Cinema Lucano, an annual film festival which highlights projects being made by the new generation of filmmakers in Basilicata. We were backstage at the festival and there was a ton of noise and distraction, so we just got through one question. Even so, I appreciated having his point-of-view. Zullino keeps a low profile, but he is one of the great talents of this new generation of Lucani filmmakers. I gave him my interpretation of the film being more of an ode to chasing a dream. He described Il Vangelo secondo Mattei as a "comedy tone, which tells a strong truth." The film speaks to how prepared we are to defend the environment upon which we walk daily. He described it as a movie about the ransom of the world, a land that is in a continual cycle of exploitation and abuse. He went on to say, "The history of oil is an ancient history, but our thinking (in the film) is not focusing on the problem from the point-of-view of the damage it's causing to the earth or the wealth it's creating. Instead, how man has created the situation and what he should do now to defend the land he occupies." 

In achieving this, they created a film inside a film in which actor Flavio Bucci plays an aging Christ, a Christ that never died. Add two bickering directors, a nagging wife and a few genius cameos by Riccardo Zinna, Mimmo Calopresti, Andrea Osvárt, Walter Nicoletti and Marco Caldron.. among others, and you get a highly entertaining, socially conscious contemporary masterpiece set against the ancient land and structures of the majestic, eternal region of Basilicata. 

In the end, it's safe to say that regardless of which continent you're living on, the world is in dire need of us inhabitants to, in Antonio Andrisani's words, "develop a critical conscience about the issues." Cinema is a powerful platform to communicate that message.

Neapolitan actor Riccardo Zinna 
Alessandro Masi of the Los Angeles-based FlexyMovies, is handling international sales and distribution including North America, where the film has already won the Audience Award at the Sugar Land Film Festival in Texas and is now being presented to buyers at the American Film Market in Santa Monica. 

Check out the trailer..

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