An appreciation for the long running great Italian mystery series Don Matteo (Lux Vide)

There are 13 seasons and 260 episodes of Don Matteo (with season 12 coming soon to MHz Choice), the wildly popular, international favorite show starring Terence Hill (b. 1930), whose breakout role in the 1973 Tonino Valerii spaghetti western, “My Name Is Nobody” set his career ablaze on both sides of the Atlantic even though his acting career began in 1951 with bit parts as a child actor in Italian films.

In order to appreciate Don Matteo, we must return to his origins as envisioned by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), whose fictional Roman Catholic priest/amateur sleuth, “Father Brown” was loosely based on the real Right Rev. Msgr. John O’Connor. A rarity in the United Kingdom, whose state religion is Anglicanism, Father Brown’s Catholicism is a testament to Chesterton’s conversion. British mystery writers favor priests as amateur detectives, making it a popular sub-genre of detective fiction. Alec Guinness starred as the eponymous Father Brown in the 1954 film.

The current BBC drama depicts Mark Williams as the man of faith in 1950s England who saw action as a soldier in WW I. James Runcie (son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury) created the Anglican vicar/sleuth in the 1950s (James Norton; Tom Brittney) in “The Grantchester  Mysteries.” Jude Tindall developed the “Sister Boniface Mysteries,” the latest addition to this genre. The titular character was introduced in the first season of “Father Brown” with Mark Williams. Becoming a Catholic nun late in life (1960s) at St. Vincent’s convent, Sister Boniface (Lorna Watson) holds a Ph.D. in forensic science, was a Bletchley Circle spook and cryptographer during WW II, and is knowledgeable in music, art and literature making her an ideal advisor to the local constabulary.

Father Brown’s literary American cousin is Father Dowling (Tom Bosley), star of the “Father Dowling Mysteries,” based on Ralph McInerny’s books, which follow the adventures of a Catholic priest in Chicago and his street-smart sidekick nun, Sister Stephanie (Tracy Nelson).

The most original sleuthing cleric is 12th Century English Benedictine monk, Cadfael (Derek Jacobi), who aids the law by re-investigating and solving various murders. Edith Pargeter (1913-95), the linguist-scholar – writing under the alias ‘Ellis Peters’ — created the “Cadfael Chronicles” as a series of historical murder mysteries whose historical personages such as King Stephen and Henry I of England; Geoffrey de Mandeville and Robert Leicester; Bishops Henry of Blois and Roger de Clinton, Abbots Heribert, Robert Pennant and others cross paths with Cadfael. This literary nexus of historical and fictional characters popularized another sub-genre known as the historical mystery novel. (Hilary Mantel’s novels are popular ‘historical fiction.’) Cadfael returns from the Crusades, seeing action both as a soldier and a sailor, meeting Muslims and other Europeans, and eventually retreating to a ‘monastic life’ in middle age where his comprehensive skills and talents as a herbalist (learned from Muslims) along with his keenly inquisitive mind and astute observations of human nature make him the perfect medical examiner, doctor, diplomat and detective whose sense of justice and equanimity allow him to traverse the secular and spiritual realms with ease in the medieval hierarchical feudal system. Cadfael illuminated the ‘Dark Ages’ for lovers of history, botany, economics, politics and religion.

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Terence Hill and Nino Frassica in Don Matteo

Let us toast these men and women of the cloth with a dram of mead!

Like his British progenitor, Don Matteo and his ecclesiastical brethren face daunting challenges, stringent Church dogma and humanity’s ever-evolving ideals of compassion and understanding. All the possible/impossible variations of the Ten Commandments are illustrated in the show. Terence Hill as Don Matteo, wearing hiking boots and a shapeless, black cassock, cannot hide his athletic physique, with a black beret tilted rakishly to the right, still showing his piercing blue eyes (sometimes hidden under aviator sunglasses) and his impossibly sensuous smile. He not only rides a bicycle but also a motorcycle and a horse. He can drive a car or a three-wheeler and shows off his skills at archery and skydiving. His handsome looks, inner warmth, compassion, sensitivity and genteel manners belie Terence Hill’s octogenarian sensuality, making women take another look.

Moving from Gubbio to Spoletto, Don Matteo – unlike his parishioners – has served his Church faithfully and loyally in his travels around the world. He is more than a spiritual guide, missionary, confessor and confident. His ministry to the poor, dispossessed, disenfranchised, downtrodden and forgotten has him play a variety of roles: a prison chaplain in the U.S.; performing weddings and baptisms; building hospitals and schools, fixing broken people and objects, and performing emergency medicine in South America; helping people get jobs and starting soup kitchens; teaching religion courses; coaching rugby and training boxers. He also visits the sick and dying; he comforts the guilty, whose souls he is always trying to save by helping them avow their guilt, thereby alleviating their burden because only then can they truly obtain God’s grace and forgiveness while guided by the padre’s homilies, parables, mini sermons and quotes of famous people.

Enrico Oldoini envisioned Don Matteo as part Everyman and part Chesterton cleric who goes beyond the template with sometimes subtle, sometimes cringe-worthy scripts, supported by a formidable and superb cast of actors who develop their characters organically with help from the writers and directors. Oldoini’s genius lies in grafting 16th Century Italian Commedia dell’arte stock characters to a modern literary genre providing comic relief and rounding out plot lines. First and foremost is Mareschiallo Cecchini (Nino Frassica) — the MILITARY/POLICE OFFICER — full of bravado and swagger, who misinterprets what he sees and hears, yet always involves others in his schemes. Pippo (Francesco Scali), the sacristan, is the silly servant – ARLECCHINO — who is inept, incompetent and lazy. Natalina (Nathalie Guetta) is the housekeeper COLUMBINA — at the rectory who is not only motherly to the children passing through her charge but also savvy, demanding and straight-forward. She is eternally optimistic and looking for love; she does not put up with anyone’s bad temper although she has many tantrums herself especially when duped or disappointed.

As a member of a distinguished and prominent cadre of clerical crime fighters, Don Matteo — the popular, personable, photogenic -– man of God and man of the people stands out for many reasons and for all seasons.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We happily discovered Dr. Pearl Brandwein while reviewing MHz Choice subscriber feedback on our programs and, after reading a half dozen or so of Dr. Brandwein’s insightful reviews, all of us here at MHz Choice had the same thought: We need to get the good doctor to write for us! Enjoy! -MHz Choice

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