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Christ Stopped at Eboli: Memories of Exile

<i>Christ Stopped at Eboli:</i> Memories of Exile

Francesco Rosi’s film Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) is based on Carlo Levi’s novelistic memoir of the same name, which became an instant classic of Italian literature when it appeared at the end of World War II, in 1945. In it, Levi recounts the year between 1935 and 1936, during which he was sent by the Fascist government to live in the small southern Italian town of Aliano (called Gagliano in the book and the movie). At the time, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime would send political dissidents into a kind of internal exile, to live in remote towns in southern Italy, where they would be required to sign in with the local police every day. Confino, as it was called, was often used by the regime to neutralize political opponents against whom it had little or no criminal evidence, by placing them in isolation, far from home, unable to travel, greatly restricted in their communications, and cut off from their family and political networks.

Levi was from the northern industrial city of Turin, center of the country’s auto industry and home to its royal family, an area that played a key role in the unification of Italy as well as a hub of union activity and left-wing politics. He trained in medicine but in the early thirties began to make a name for himself as a painter. He had spent time living in Paris, where he had established relations with many leading artistic figures, as well as the community of anti-Fascist exiles who gathered in the French capital. One of these was Carlo Rosselli, who had founded a socialist group called Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), which became perhaps the most important non-Communist anti-Fascist movement. Levi returned to Turin and quietly recruited new Justice and Liberty members from among the city’s younger intellectuals, often using his work as a painter to mask his political activity, having his comrades sit for portraits as they all talked politics and organized ways of smuggling copies of the group’s newspaper into the country.

After his arrest in 1935, Levi was sent to two different towns in what was then called Lucania, now Basilicata, a small region that is basically the arch of the foot in between the heel and toe of the Italian boot. Levi found himself plunged into what for an urban northern Italian like him was the profoundly alien world of the southern peasant: “Imprisoned in its pain and customs, forgotten by history and by the State, eternally patient . . . the peasant lives in misery and isolation, without comfort or kindness . . . on arid soil in the presence of death.”

Levi named his book Christ Stopped at Eboli, after an expression that he heard in Lucania, meaning that the grace of God, Christian mercy, did not extend farther south than Eboli, a town about fifty miles, or an hour’s drive, south of Naples and eighty-five miles north of Gagliano/Aliano—and yet it seemed light years away, since it was impossible to reach by public transportation. As Rosi’s narrator says—in lines paraphrased from Levi's book—“Christ stopped at Eboli, where the road and the train abandon the coast and the sea and venture into the wastelands of Lucania. Christ never came here. Nor did time, the individual soul, or hope. Nor did cause and effect, reason or history. No one has set foot on this land except as a conqueror, an enemy, or an uncomprehending visitor.”

It is not an easy book to make into a movie. It has no real plot. It consists of a series of impressions, of small vivid scenes, from local stories and legends he has heard—a gallery of characters sketched in well-drawn vignettes, illuminated by an array of small incidents. Levi writes with an anthropologist’s eye, describing what he sees as the almost pre-Christian world of the southern peasants, who profess to believe that a man may be part wolf and part human, that the souls of unbaptized children live among them as mischievous but ultimately harmless spirits, and that dusk is the hour when guardian angels enter their homes to protect them, meaning they are careful not to toss out their garbage then. At the same time, the local word for human being is cristiano (Christian), so that when they want to say someone is a good person, they say he is a buon cristiano. Despite having abandoned medicine for painting, Levi is pressed into service immediately by the urgent health needs of a population riddled with malaria and other illnesses. This brings him into intimate contact with the town’s residents, especially its peasants, who prefer him to the two local doctors they regard as corrupt and incompetent. A number of people refer to Levi as a “buon cristiano”—since he doesn’t charge for his help. It is a touching irony since Levi was Jewish (a fact that is never alluded to in either book or film). What holds the book together and gives it unity is the voice and sensibility of the narrator, who is both an observer and the protagonist of his story—which creates a meditative mood that Levi manages to establish almost immediately with his prose. Translating this was perhaps the biggest challenge for Rosi in adapting the book into visual form.

Rosi confronts this challenge in a variety of ways. The opening shots of the film show Levi, almost ten years after leaving Gagliano, surrounded by his own paintings of the town and its people (these are actual paintings completed by Levi during his year in Lucania). This establishes the film as a work of memory, filtered through its narrator’s mind and voice, even though we then shift to 1935 and enter what becomes the present time frame of the film. The elegiac music (written by Piero Piccioni) that we hear in the opening and throughout the film creates a sense of nostalgia, the feel of events recalled in memory.

Playing the part of Levi we have Gian Maria Volontè, one of Rosi’s favorite actors, who is in many ways the cornerstone on which the film rests. Better known to American audiences for his role in the first two Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns directed by Sergio Leone, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), Volontè starred in five Rosi films, including The Mattei Affair (1972), Lucky Luciano (1973), and Christ Stopped at Eboli. The director marveled at his frequent collaborator’s ability to pull off such different roles: a hard-charging entrepreneur (Mattei), a ruthless gangster (Luciano), a sensitive painter and writer (Levi). “Volontè had an ability to internalize his character and become that character,” Rosi said. In the case of Christ Stopped at Eboli, the protagonist’s role is perhaps even more important than usual given the lack of a conventional plot, and while the character is in many of the film’s scenes, often he is there as an observer. In the film, we frequently watch a scene while also watching Levi/Volontè watch it at the same time. He sees an old man slaughtering a goat and blowing air into its skin as a means of preserving it. We watch him watch as an itinerant craftsman castrates the village pigs; as all the townspeople listen to a speech by their mayor, which they are required to attend, about the coming invasion of Ethiopia; as the women of the town mourn their dead. This places unusual pressure on Volontè as an actor. We take our emotional cues from him, reading the subtle movements of his face as a sailor might study the ripples on the surface of a lake to gauge the strength and direction of the wind.

“Rosi forces us to pay close attention to the faces, the dress, and the scenes of Gagliano, just as Levi would have done, so that he could continue painting them for the rest of his life.”

“Rosi considered Christ Stopped at Eboli to be deeply connected to his other films. In fact, he regarded it as a kind of summation of that work.”

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