(Christ Stopped at Eboli)
Director: Francesco Rosi
Production: Vides Cinematografica, Radiotelevisione Italiana, Action Films, Société Nouvelle des Etablissements; colour, Technoscope; running time: 155 minutes. Filmed in Matera, Craco, Rome, 1978.
Producers: Franco Cristaldi, Nicola Carraro; associate producers: Yves Gasser, Yves Peyrot; screenplay: Francesco Rosi, Tonino
Cast: Gian Maria Volonté ( Carlo Levi ); Paolo Bonaccelli ( Don Luigino ); Alain Cuny ( Baron Rotunno ); Lea Massari ( Luisa Levi ); Irene Papas ( Giulia Venere ); Francois Simon ( Don Trajella ); Luigi Infantino ( Chauffeur ); Accursio DeLeo ( Carpenter ); Francesco Callari ( Dr. Gibilisco ); Vincenzo Vitale ( Dr. Milillo ); Antonio Alocca ( Don Cosimino ).
Levi, Carlo, Christ Stopped at Eboli , translated by Frances Frenaye, Middlesex, 1982.
Tassone, Aldo, Le cinéma italien parle , Paris, 1982.
Michalczyk, J.J, The Italian Political Film-makers , London/Toronto, 1986.
Marcus, Millicent, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism , Princeton, New Jersey, 1986.
Ciment, Michel, Le dossier Rosi , Paris 1987.
Mitchell, T., Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1978.
Ciment, M., Positif (Paris), February 1979.
Variety (New York), 21 March 1979.
Tournes, A., Jeune Cinéma (Paris), June 1979.
Peruzzi, G., Cinema Nuovo (Bari), June 1979.
Gili, J.A., "Levi, Rosi, Eboli" in Ecran (Paris), September 1979.
Fox, J., Films and Filming (London), January 1980.
Grelier, R., Image et Son (Paris), May 1980.
Legrand, G., and M. Sineux, "Là-bas et maintenent autrefois et non loin" in Positif (Paris), May 1980.
Magny, J., Cinéma (Paris), June 1980.
Berube, R.C., Séquences (Montreal), January 1981.
Hibbin, S., Films and Filming (London), June 1982.
Ranvaud, D., Monthly Film Bulletin (London), June 1982.
Rashish, P., Stills (London), Winter 1982.
Crowdus, G., "Francesco Rosi: Italy's Postmodern Neorealist," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, no. 4, 1994.
Cieutat, M., "Des Christ par centaines," in Cinemaction (Conde-sur-Noireau), no. 80, 1996.
Castoro Cinema (Milan), March 1998.
* * *
One of Francesco Rosi's finest films, Christ Stopped at Eboli is based on the book by Carlo Levi in which the author recalls the time when, in 1935, because of his opposition to Fascism in general and the Abyssinian War in particular, he was sent into internal exile in the village of Gagliano in Lucania, an extremely remote province of southern Italy. It's extremely easy, especially for a non-Italian audience, to misunderstand the title, whose import is that Christ stopped short of Gagliano. To quote Levi himself: "Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason, nor history. None of the pioneers of Western civilization brought here his sense of the passage of time, his deification of the State or that ceaseless activity which feeds upon itself. No one has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding."
Rosi had been interested in filming Levi's book since the early 1960s, and it's easy to see why, given the centrality of the "Southern [Italy] problem" to the entirety of his oeuvre, and to Italy's on-going crises. Rosi himself is from the South, and had also worked as Visconti's assistant on his Southern drama La terra trema. But whereas in the early days, he has explained, he would have filmed it "from a perspective much closer to neo-realism, impressed by the misery, the illnesses, the backwardness of the peasants in an underdeveloped region abandoned by all, even by Christ, I think today my point of view is different. It's no longer a question of only these problems, but especially of marginalisation." Furthermore, he became more interested in the mutual encounter of a Northern intellectual and the Southern peasantry, and especially in the way in which Carlo's plunge into a totally alien existence enables him to "journey into his own consciousness."
Rosi establishes the marginalisation of Gagliano right from the start by the train, bus and car journeys which Carlo has to make in order to get there in the first place. After that, Rosi combines frequent panning shots of the bleak Lucanian landscape with much tighter shots of Gagliano's town square and of the interiors of its dwellings. The sensation is of a stifling, suffocating community lost in the vastness of an alien landscape, a feeling at once agoraphobic and claustrophobic. Rosi's alternating perspectives recall the early scene in the book in which Carlo meditates on the town's petty bourgeoisie: "their passions, it was plain to see, were not rooted in history; they did not extend beyond the village, encircled by malaria-ridden clay; they were multiplied within the enclosure of half a dozen houses . . . . Penned up in petty souls and desolate surroundings, they seethed like the steam pressing against the lid of the widow's saucepan where a thin broth was whistling and grumbling over a low wood fire. I looked into the fire, thinking of the endless chain of days that lay ahead of me when my horizon, too, would be bounded by these dark emotions."
Gagliano may be physically isolated and remote, but thanks to an astute use of radio broadcasts, the exploits of the fascist regime are never far from mind. On Carlo's first day he is walking through the streets when he hears a speech by the Italian aviator De Pinedo about the onward march of Italian civilization under fascism, blaring from a radio. Not only does the radio belong to a former emigrant to America who has returned home (thereby underlining peasant culture's imperviousness to ideas about progress) but Rosi makes sure that we are aware of the almost timeless nature of the primitive streets over which De Pinedo's hectorings are drifting. Another example of Gagliano's utter isolation from the rest of Mussolini's Italy is provided by the film's most famous and virtuoso sequence: the three-minute pan over the peasants tilling the fields whilst the speakers in the square blare out the dictator boasting of the conquest of Addis Ababa and the end of the war. As Don Ranvaud has put it, this scene is a "powerful statement of the total remoteness of the villagers from any notion of the State and the identification of one savaged people with another. Rome is a meaningless voice expressing meaningless concepts; the only reality in Lucania is the landscape or the promise of New York's Little Italy." Or, in other words, things are no worse (or better) under Fascism than under any other sort of regime, all are remote, alien agents of oppression.
Rosi is careful, however, not to make his film an exercise in miserabilism and pauperism. What interests him most, here, is the meeting of two cultures, that of Carlo and that of the peasants. Indeed, Carlo's encounter with the peasantry is not unlike Rosi's own, for although he, unlike Carlo, is himself a Southerner, both are urban intellectuals and hence almost equally far removed from the life of the peasantry. As Rosi put it: "travelling through the places where Levi discovered a new world, confirms a Gramsci-like optimism, a belief in a better future for men and women who are endowed with an exceptional humanity. But one aspect I want to bring out in the film is that even the best of bourgeois intellectuals and artists, like Levi, who are quite happy to live amongst these people, with whom they feel a real brotherhood, end up leaving them to it. I had the same experience with La terra trema . . . . . Which means that Levi in the film is a bit like me. The film is an encounter between a bourgeois intellectual representing a refined Northern culture and a completely different, distant world, the world of the peasant in one of the most neglected regions of the South. It's not only a journey into humanity, but also into nature, objects, lights, shadows, sounds, animals, inside people's houses a journey into the minds and eyes and consciousness of the people." Carlo's horizons, then, turn out not to be bounded, as he feared, but considerably broadened, and his inner life becomes as freed as his physical life is geographically restricted.
What we don't have here, fortunately, is a mythologisation of the peasantry in the Pasolini mode. As Millicent Marcus has put it in a particularly perceptive analysis of the film: "It would be easy for Rosi to sensationalise the strangeness and savagery of peasant existence under the pretext of educating his protected middle-class public. But to do so would be to burst uninvited into that closed world, to profane the mystery, and to violate that otherness which Rosi, following Levi's lead, so deeply respects. When he finally does coax us into the realm of peasant thought, it is through a slow and gentle motion of understanding, and not through a shocking leap into anthropological difference."
This process begins, strikingly, on the long journey to Gagliano, and continues with the film's gradual accommodation to the natural rhythms of the peasants' routines and of village life in general. As Marcus notes: "As Carlo abandons his modern, urban perspective and enters into a very different mentality, so we too are urged to abandon our conventional cinematic expectations of pacing and density of action, to embrace this slow, meditative technique that simulates, on the level of style, the very world it represents." By the end of this process we, like Carlo, may come to realise that, although Christ may have stopped at Eboli, Gagliano is not a godforsaken hole but simply somewhere very different from what we are accustomed to. This process involves "a recognition of the contingency and arbitrariness of our own perceptual modes and the acceptance of equally valid alternative world views."
Rosi's film, like Levi's book, is set in the 1930s, but its subject matter is as relevant today as ever. Gagliano's troglodytes may have been rehoused, but the South remains as poor as ever, and is increasingly the object of northern hostility, and even separationist threats. As Rosi himself has put it, the peasants now have been "dispossessed of their culture by the arrival of a new one, via the mass media and TV which has superimposed itself on their own ancient culture. The peasants, surrounded by motorways and TV, see the evidence in the pollution and despoliation of their own culture without being able to reap any of the benefits. This land is no longer isolated physically, but there is perhaps an even more cruel marginalisation in the extent to which the South of Italy has undergone in a traumatic fashion the arrival of the consumer society without this being accompanied by a parallel evolution of other aspects of life. The South has been emptied of its workforce. In Levi's time men went to work in America, but in less great numbers than they go today to the North of Italy, to Switzerland and to Germany. Villages which numbered 3000 inhabitants ten years ago now have 1200. Young people no longer want to work the land, because they've got qualifications and they'd feel it degrading to bring in the harvest." And now, European recessions and cut-backs in heavy industries have made it much more difficult to find work outside the South. The problem of the two Italies is even more acute today than when the film was made.
In conclusion, it should be pointed out that Christ Stopped at Eboli exists in two versions, as a feature film and as a four-part series made for television lasting around four hours. Both carry Rosi's imprimatur, but the longer one is preferable, particularly given Rosi's abovementioned attention to matters of pacing.