The rugged sorrowful beauty of Matera has been appreciated by many creative directors for its biblical possibilities. As I wrote previously:
Later filmed in Matera, in Christ Stopped at Eboli Carlo Levi wrote about the poverty and squalor of Southern Italy, an area where residents felt they had been “bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself”. Francesco Rossi was enchanted by Matera’s abandoned caves and used them in his film adaptation of Levi’s book. In 2004 Matera became Jerusalem for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, where the dusty, barren landscape and crumbling, rough-hewn stone houses evoke the suffering of Christ.
Once a year at Christmas the city serves again as a stage set – this time for the nativity story performed in what is called a ‘presepe vivente’. The streets and houses become the setting for a moving performance of the Christmas story, with actors in costumes, live animals, craft displays and food, and the crowd mingling in between. The uneven winding cobbled street is lit by flickering candles and scattered with hay. At intervals a scene is regularly performed, such as the Roman soldiers receiving their orders from King Herod or a rustic domestic kitchen where hot sweet fried treats are being prepared for lucky passers-by.
At other points there a sheep ruminating over their hay and elegant Roman aristocrats lounging on plush sofas amongst palm trees, and throughout the route the scent of burning candles lingers in the air.
The route begins at the modern Piazza Vittorio Veneto and leads you down into the ancient narrow rock lined streets. From here you see stretching before you the meandering trail of shimmering lights leading you up streets looking out across the ravine.
The craggy jumble of houses amassed on the rock face are softly lit with yellow, orange and white lights. From across the cavernous ravine a beam of light streams out from one of the many caves hewn into the rock and strikes the church of San Pietro Caveoso which sits in a piazza jutting out over the ravine with a dramatic panorama.
Winding even higher you reach the humble family resting with a donkey near some of the oldest rock-formed churches of Matera.
While Matera’s desolate, sun-scorched landscape and powerful history of terrible human suffering added a potent undertone to films depicting Christ’s trials, it is a setting that also lends gravity to the traditionally light-hearted nativity story. Even though many caves are no longer inhabited or have been ironically transformed into shabby-chic hotels, their history as slums adds an element of harsh reality to the story of a family ordered to travel miles on foot and by donkey, and a pregnant mother who is offered no comfort and is forced to give birth in a stable surrounded by animals. In the sassi of Matera humans and animals slept together, causing serious sanitary problems and a high infant mortality rate.
Although an evening enjoying the flickering flames, elaborate costumes and warming scents floating on the crisp cold air is intended to kindle the joyful Christmas spirit, a consideration of Matera’s situation in the past perhaps adds a second metaphorical aspect to the nativity story recalling families of today who are forced to travel in perilous situations, sleep in unhygienic, dirty places and protect their children from disease and hunger with no help.