Christ's Passion gives cave town a biblical bonanza

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The Independent Online

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".

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. "That's where Mr Gibson stayed; that's where he drank his morning cappuccino."

Way down near the instep of the Italian boot, yet too far from the coast to have benefited from a recent rash of beach resorts, dozens of miles from any major town, Matera looks like a cliché of southern Italian poverty and deprivation.

Yet things are not as dismal as they appear. When the region was menaced last autumn by the government's plan to concentrate all of Italy's nuclear waste at a single dump near the sea, the people rose up. Within six weeks they had forced the government to back down.

Matera may appear to have little going for it besides dank caves and a history of outrageous misery, but the "new town" has elegance and charm.

And now Matera has decided to make hay while Mel's star shines. It has launched a website, sassiweb (the cave dwellings are called sassi), to spread the news that Mel stopped here.

With the The Passion of the Christ Package Tours advertised on the site, the town hopes to lure fans of the gory film by the thousand. And if they fall in love with the place, locals are happy to pass on the news that some of the cave-dwellings are up for sale. For that Italian pied-à-terre with a difference.

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