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Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Italian Biblical Movies to Watch During Lent

Join me in beginning the Lenten season with my favorite adaptation of one of the Gospels-  Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 “Il Vangolo Secondo Matteo" (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) and a few classics that I recently discovered. 

Considered by the Vatican to be among the best film adaptations of the Gospels, Pasolini's film was shot in the regions of Basilicata and Calabria. He cast his mother as Mary and many locals as extras. Spanish actor Enrique Irazoqui was cast in the role of Jesus. He was just 18-years-old when he landed the part. He had been in Rome at the time of casting. Acquaintances arranged a meeting between him and Pasolini. When Pasolini saw Irazoqui, he knew right away that he had found his Jesus.

I contacted Irazoqui around this time last year to ask him about his experience making the film. He suggested that we have a conversation via Skype. Although the connection wasn’t very good, it was thrilling to talk directly with this actor whose film I had been watching for at least 20 years. He was very friendly and nostalgic in his recollections especially about Elsa Morante with whom he shared a lifelong friendship. In fact, he said that meeting her was one of his best memories of working on the film. Irazoqui passed away a few months later and I believe that ours was his last interview. I will cherish it. 

Watch our interview on YouTube..

If you'd like to know more about Pasolini in Basilicata, click here to read my 2015 interview with Daniele Bracuto, president of the region's Cineforum Pier Paolo Pasolini. We talked about the locations of the film, what attracted Pasolini to shoot there and the legacy of his filmmaking on the region. Also, check my 2018 documentary "Return to Lucania" in which actor/director Antonio Andrisani talks about his 2017 film "Il Vangolo Secondo Mattei" (The Gospel According to St. Mathews), a take on Pasolini's film, which stars Flavio Bucci with Irazoqui in a cameo role. The film addresses the controversial issue of oil drilling in Basilicata, a topic that interested Pasolini.

Liliana Cavani’s “Francesco” is another very good biblical film. Starring Mickey Rourke and Helena Bonham Carter, Cavani’s 1989 film tells the story of St. Francis of Assisi from the point-of-view of his followers. Tapping into her early years at RAI, the film takes a documentary approach as it reveals key aspects of the saint’s personality, including his humility, generosity, love of animals and his early inner conflict about abandoning his father's wealth to immerse himself in the world of the desperately poor. 

I found several others available online. I'll be watching a few of these along with you for the first time. Spanning 100 years, these films are sure to keep us busy over the next 40 days!

Giulio Antamoro’s 1916 “Christus”

(Title boards are in Italian)

This spectacular restoration of the 1916 original follows the life of Jesus Christ from the Annunciation of Our Lady to his birth and through his early life and betrayal by Judas, concluding with the crucifixion and his resurrection and ascension to Heaven.


Roberto Rossellini’s 1975 “The Messiah”

(I could not find this film with English subtitles but as we have so many Italian and Spanish-speaking readers, I am including the versions in those languages.)

I have not yet seen this film.. but I found this commentary here"Though The Messiah is not a flawless film, it is a great one. For one thing, since its subject is usually conceived of in apolitical terms, the inconsistencies of Rossellini's historical method are perhaps less bothersome than they are elsewhere. Furthermore, the director's treatment of the all too familiar story is refreshingly astringent, and the typical strategies of dedramatized acting and antispectacular mise-en-scène here find their perfect subject." 

(In Italian with Croation subtitles)

Spanish-language dub

Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 British television series "Jesus of Nazareth"

This 6-hour series boasts an all-star cast that includes Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Claudia Cardinale, Valentina Cortese, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer and Anthony Quinn. "Extra-Biblical traditions were used in the writing of the screenplay, and some characters (such as Zerah) and situations were invented for the film for brevity or dramatic purposes. [The film] depicts Judas Iscariot as a well-intentioned man initially, but later as a dupe of Zerah's who betrays Jesus largely as a result of Zerah's false platitudes and pretexts. However, in accordance with the Gospels, the film depicts Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as sympathetic members of the Sanhedrin. Many of the miracles of Jesus, such as the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, the transfiguration, and the calming of the storm, are not depicted."  Click here for more information. 

The Italian version.. "Gesu di Nazareth" di Zeffirelli Versione integrale Rai di 380 min

Carlo Carlei's 2000 "Padre Pio Miracle Man"

Originally made for Italian television, "Padre Pio Miracle Man" follows the boy, Francesco Forgione before he joined the Capuchin order of friars and was given the name Pio. The film documents Padre Pio's deep faith and spirituality as well as the persecution that he received by those in and outside of the Catholic Church.  It also gives us rare insight to Padre Pio's sharp sense of humor amid the pain that he endured during his lifetime, in particular with the stigmata he is known for. Sergio Castellitto eerily transforms himself into the man and the saint, making this an emotionally moving dramatic film that will entertain and educate you at the same time. Click here to stream the film on Formed or below to purchase the DVD on Amazon.

Mel Gibson's 2004 "The Passion of the Christ"

This infamous and controversial film was shot at Rome's Cinecittà and on location in Basilicata's Sassi of Matera. Starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Maia Morgenstern as the Virgin Mary, and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene, the film covers the final 12 hours before Christ's death, which is reflected in the title. The film gives a gruesome and heartbreaking account of the suffering that Jesus was forced to endure at the end of his life. Check out my interviews with actresses Sabrina Impacciatore and Claudia Gerini in which they talk about their experiences working on the film.


Giulio Base's 2006 "L'inchiesta" (The Inquiry)

A remake of Damiano Damiani's 1986 film of the same name, Base's 2006 version features a diverse international cast that includes Daniele Liotti, Dolph Lundgren, Mónica Cruz, Hristo Shopov and Ornella Muti. The film follows a fictional Roman tribune sent to Judaea to investigate the possible divinity of the recently crucified Jesus Christ. Watch it for free courtesy of IMDB.

Garth Davis's 2018 "Mary Magdalene"

Filmed mostly on location in the Sassi of Matera utilizing many local actors, "Mary Magdalene" features Rooney Mara in the role of Mary Magdalene and Joaquin Phoenix in the part of Jesus. The real-life couple is said to have fallen in love during the making of the film. Click here to stream on Hulu or on the image below to stream on Amazon.

Dave Hansen's 2016 “Jesus VR – The Story of Christ” 

Executive produced by Enzo Sisti, a film veteran whose credits include “The English Patient” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” “Jesus VR – The Story of Christ” was shot entirely in 360° 4K video on location in Matera. The 90-minute film covers the life and death of Jesus from his baptism to the Last Supper to his crucifixion. 

Matera-born actor Walter Nicoletti plays the role of the disciple, James. Click here to read our conversation about his experience working on the film and his thoughts on film production in his region of Basilicata.

The 80-minute film will be available on iOS, Android and premium VR platforms including Google Cardboard, and Oculus Go. In the meantime, click here to purchase the Jesus VR App, which includes Chapters 3, 8 & 12 along with a pair of VR Glasses.

Buona visione! I wish you a safe and peaceful Lenten season.

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