Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Don Matteo

Don Matteo (in Italian with English subtitles)
12 Episodes on 3 DVDs
Ignatius Press

Why can’t Protestants solve crimes? It seems like all the good sleuths of the cloth are Catholic, like G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Ralph McInerney’s Father Dowling, and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael, all of whom have been gone from books to television. They also have Italian company in Don Matteo (or Father Matthew), a long-running RAI series about an Umbrian village priest who solves crimes and saves souls, now available to American consumers in a twelve episode collection from Ignatius Press.

Making Matteo more accessible to American audiences is the recognizable presence of actor Terence Hill in the lead role. After taking several parts in Italy under his original name, Mario Girotti, Hill gained notoriety for his work in The Leopard with Burt Lancaster. He changed his name to pursue Hollywood work, the best remembered of which are probably the Trinity comedic westerns and Super Fuzz. (Yes, Don Matteo is Super Fuzz, how super bad is that?). As Father Matteo, Hill projects a strong, reassuring presence, looking a picture of craggy but vital late middle age.

The supporting cast does not always come off as well as the good father. The rectory’s domestic servants provide downright painful comic relief. The Carabinieri, the coppers, fare somewhat better. The banter between Captain Anceschi and Marshall Cecchini kind of grows on you, and the scenes in which Matteo offers them spiritual counseling adds a dimension never seen in American hour-long dramatic television.

Released by the Catholic publishing company, Ignatius Press, Don Matteo, does indeed take faith seriously. Matteo’s concern for his flock extends to both the souls of victims and perpetrators. Some storylines therefore unfold a little differently than American viewers might expect, like in “Murder in the Library,” in which the mysterious Vatican scroll actually does not conceal a secret that could undermine the entire Catholic Church. Unfortunately, some Hollywood conventions evidently extend to Italy, like a tiresome storyline about the new Mayor’s pursuit of environmental policies over the opposition of the local landed interests, but at least Milena Miconi brings a Jane Seymour-like appeal to the role.

Given the limits of fifty minute episodes, the mysteries are not particularly complex, but the writers try not to blatantly telegraph every plot development. Still, the strongest aspect of Matteo is its treatment of Catholic faith. In an episode like “The Poisoned Chalice” we see Father Matteo, shaken by several attempts on his life, find strength through prayer. Though Matteo frequently quotes other sources (including even the Quran), he speaks pretty directly about God and Jesus, as when he tells the killer in the first collected episode: “The godless can’t even imagine how limitless God’s love is.”

Set in the picturesque town of Gubbio, Matteo looks great, often acting as a persuasive commercial for Umbrian tourism, enhanced by Pino Donaggio’s breezy theme music. Hill is still a cool screen presence, giving Matteo real charisma. Definitely G-rated and probably considered corny by Italian hipsters, Don Matteo is not perfect (again that comic relief must not translate well), but it has a real novelty appeal, given the cynical treatment of all organized Christianity and Catholicism in particular on American television.