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When I first started watching Don Matteo (consisting of almost 200 episodes in total since starting in 2000) on MHz Worldview International Mystery, it was on the advice of a good friend who'd stumbled across the channel and the international mysteries that air on it in the evenings. I didn't even know MHz existed down there in the Comcast 250's before that. "A detective priest!" my friend raved. "You'll love him!" At first watch, Don Matteo seemed crazy silly to me. About a bike-riding, cassock-wearing, priest (played by the endlessly energetic Terrence Hill -- of spaghetti western fame) who solves crimes because the local police force (the "Carabinieri") is (frankly) too incompetent to do it on their own.
There seemed to be about five basic plots that the writers of this series rehashed over and over AND OVER again, throwing in a slight variation here, changing a minor story line there (for example, there's the kayaking competition episode, the bicycling competition episode... and then there's the episode where Natalina (one of Matteo's "side-kicks") gets a dog, another where she gets a baby. I could imagine the writers sitting around a table and looking at their blank pages and saying "let's do THIS again!" It all seemed... well... like I said, silly. And then, suddenly, I realized I was hooked. I love this show. I totally adore it. Yes. The characters are silly. The mysteries not very mysterious. The police are more like the Marx Brothers than SVU. BUT IT WORKS.
It is adorable and enjoyable and it makes me feel great to watch it on a good day, and feel good to watch it on a lousy day.
Much of the brilliance here falls directly on the capable shoulders of Nino Frassica, who plays Maresciallo Cecchini (one of the aforementioned Carabinieri). He's a physical comedy genius, and his interactions with his Captain (played by the equally enjoyable Simone Montedoro) are miracles of timing and humor. Some of my very favorite scenes in the series involve these two actors playing off each other with great skill and aplomb.
Terrence Hill is also magnificent in the starring role.
As I've written in another review, Italian mystery shows like this are a genre unto themselves. If there's a spectrum, and the Scandinavian mysteries like Wallander are on the ultraviolet end of the spectrum, Don Matteo is as far as you can get on the other side in the infrared. It is bright and funny and not at all subtle. This show is not so much about the mystery as it is about the characters, their relationships with each other and the world around them, and about morality, fairness and kindness, family and love.
Yes, as someone wrote, this show may be a vehicle for the Catholic Church (although Matteo does seem to be very open minded about many things the Church does not approve of). And it may be predicable and at times a little mind-numbing (there is a lot of comic relief in this show, but it is often played as a single note). However, Don Matteo is simply wonderful to watch.
Many thanks to MHz Worldview International Mystery for airing this series. As I write this review, I am anxiously anticipating the start of the seventh season.
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