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.”

The film is in many ways about looking and observing. We start by seeing Levi’s paintings of Lucania, knowing that what will come in the film will eventually translate into those pictures. 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. In a rather bold move, Rosi spends nearly eighteen minutes on Levi’s trip to reach the village: two train rides; one on a bus, complete with chickens; and finally one by car. This is meant not only to show us the extreme isolation of the village and its lack of connection to the outside world but also to habituate the viewer to looking, and looking though Levi’s eyes—we take in the landscape of Lucania through the windows. Rather than simply showing us the village and its inhabitants, Rosi wants to make us aware that we are seeing through a particular lens. The film’s last view of Gagliano comes through the rain-streaked window of the same car as Levi is driving off. This both serves to tie the film together and to remind us that everything we are seeing is filtered through Levi’s subjectivity and memory. As Levi does in his book, Rosi puts us into a meditative mood from the start.

Rosi is remarkably faithful to Levi’s memoir and managed to work into his film a surprisingly high percentage of the book’s scenes and characters and ideas. He made the adaptation in cooperation with the Italian state television company, RAI, as a kind of series in four hour-long parts (a shorter version was made for theatrical release). In the interest of narrative coherence and dramatic sense, Rosi sometimes stitches together scenes, conversations, or incidents that are separate in the book. For example, during Levi’s train trip to reach the village, he comes across an abandoned dog who has been left in the station with a sign around his neck giving the name Barone and asking whoever finds him to take care of him. The dog follows Levi, who ends up adopting him. The story of the dog and this sign is true, but in the book it occurs at another point. Rosi folds it into the opening both for economy and to weave a minor drama, as well as some lightness and humor, into the long, elegiac opening sequence. Similarly, Rosi combines two of the stranger scenes in the book, both involving the woman Levi employs to keep house for him in the village, Giulia. Hiring her proves unusually difficult since, in the peasant culture of Gagliano, it is strictly forbidden for a woman to be alone with a man. An exception is eventually made for Giulia because she is considered to be a witch. As Levi learns, customs regarding women and sex are simultaneously rigid and puritanical, and flexible and forgiving. Many of the men of the village have emigrated to America, leaving their young wives, often never to be heard from again. Meanwhile, the abandoned wives continue to have children—a fact of life the villagers fully accept. Giulia, played memorably by Irene Papas, is smart and vital, with a kind of feral beauty. She has had more than a dozen children after her husband left for America, most of whom died in their infancy. The two scenes from the book involve Levi taking a bath with hot water Giulia has prepared, and his painting her portrait. In the first, she insists without the least embarrassment on soaping and washing his back, commenting favorably on his body. In the second, Giulia flatly refuses to have her portrait painted on the grounds that it would take part of her soul. The book’s rendition of that latter scene, involving a violent slap, is a hard one to read and interpret. In Rosi's shrewd and sensitive merging of these two sequences, the resistance and acquiescence to the portrait painting are playful, with an erotic undertone that matches the preceding moments in the bath.

One of the story lines that gives a certain dramatic arc to the film concerns Italy’s war against Ethiopia. The invasion appears imminent when Levi arrives in Gagliano; begins officially in October 1935, in the middle of his year there; and ends with Italy’s triumphal entry into Addis Ababa in May 1936 and Mussolini’s declaration of empire, which cuts short Levi’s time in the village when he, along with many other political prisoners, is granted amnesty. Levi moves between the entirely separate worlds of the town’s small bourgeoisie—i signori—and the peasants who work the fields and do all the manual labor. The town’s small Fascist contingent is limited to its better-off citizens, while the peasants are indifferent to Mussolini’s speeches. Levi notes that they are profoundly apolitical, since they regard anything coming from Rome and the state with suspicion and fear. Levi has extensive dealings with Gagliano’s mayor, Don Luigi Magalone, who doubles as its schoolteacher and is tasked with promoting Fascism in the town. He is a complex character, as played by Paolo Bonacelli—kindly disposed toward Levi, whom he enjoys talking to as one “scholar” to another, but also a loyal Fascist who is careful to enforce the regime’s orders, including those regarding Levi. He reads all of Levi’s letters to his family back in Turin before passing them along to the official censors. At one point, he advises Levi not to send a particular letter, convinced that it will lead to the authorities’ extending his period of confinement. In discussing this, they engage in a little conversation about the nature of the Italian state. In the offending letter, Levi has written that the peasants in Gagliano are “not Fascists, nor do they belong to any other party,” because political parties represent a distant, generally hostile government that is totally alien to them. “Don’t forget,” the mayor interjects, “the Duce is in Rome.” But he continues reading from the letter, admiring its prose even as he urges Levi to destroy it.

In the world of Gagliano’s peasants, the state is present only as a taxing, interfering, and uncomprehending presence. While Levi is there, he notices the peasants slaughtering their goats because, as they explain, the state has decided to put a tax on goats as a means of protecting trees. This policy, they point out, might make sense for some parts of northern Italy, but it is a disaster for them: Lucania’s rocky, arid landscape has very few trees, while goats are among the only things standing between them and famine. Similarly nonsensical to the peasants is an initial order from authorities in Matera—the administrative seat that governs Gagliano—forbidding Levi from practicing medicine in the village. The mayor goes along with it at first, sparking a rebellion in the town—until his own daughter falls ill. Levi agrees to treat her on the condition that he be free to treat everyone else.

Christ Stopped at Eboli is, at least superficially, an unusual film in Rosi’s larger body of work. In most of his work, he is perhaps the most journalistic of Italy’s great post–World War II directors. Frequently, he would get his idea for a film from reading some piece of local news that struck him as containing a mystery or the germ of a larger and more important issue: a killing in the Naples food market, the collapse of a building, a plane crash that may or may not have been accidental. With a combination of meticulous research and full immersion in the location of his subject, Rosi would then reconstruct and recreate the world of his story in a way that managed to combine analytical rigor, civic and moral passion, and the natural feel of unrehearsed documentary. With Salvatore Giuliano (1962), for example, he decided in a brilliant intuition to write the screenplay while living in Montelepre, the Sicilian bandit Giuliano’s hometown, where many of the residents had lived through events shown in the film. He went on to cast the movie almost exclusively with local people and nonactors, giving it a powerful realism and naturalism even though it is meticulously planned.

“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.”

But 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. What they have in common is a preoccupation with southern Italy. Rosi was born and raised in Naples—the former capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the realm ruled by the Spanish and Bourbon kings before the unification of Italy—which had sunk into abject poverty as he entered adulthood during World War II. Born in 1922, he was twenty years younger than Carlo Levi and was shaped by the falling apart of Fascism. Whereas Levi was active politically—and served nine years in the Italian Senate as an independent on the Communist Party list—Rosi avoided close affiliation with any particular party, although he was roughly aligned with the non-Communist left. (Volontè, by contrast, was more overtly radical in his politics, taking a public stand to help far-left activists who were accused, sometimes wrongly, of terrorist activity.) The political focus of Rosi’s work was on the failure of the postwar order to follow through on its promises of Italian democracy—the disastrous consequences of secret pacts with the Mafia to help with the American invasion of Sicily (Lucky Luciano) and to keep the Communists out of power (Salvatore Giuliano); collusion between corrupt politicians and real estate developers in Naples (Hands over the City, 1963).

At the end of Christ Stopped at Eboli, we see Levi back in Turin, finding himself completely out of sync with his old friends and their debates about how to shape Italy’s future after the fall of Fascism. Despite their well-intentioned aim of addressing Italy’s “southern problem,” he finds them as disconnected from the reality of the rural South as their Fascist opponents—one side trying to impose democracy, the other side Fascism. And he strongly senses that they will do little to bridge the chasm that separates southern Italians from the government in Rome.


This underlying theme of Christ Stopped at Eboli, the broken relationship between citizen and state in southern Italy, was an intense concern for Rosi. The Mafia phenomenon is the ultimate expression of that breakdown, with violent gangsters usurping the functions of the state for their private gain. Rosi was obsessed with the ways in which the people of the region were reduced to the role of mere subjects rather than acquiring the rights of full citizenship.

He loved the title the organizers gave to a retrospective of his work: Citizen Rosi, a term he considered the highest honor. In a world in which corrupt politicians make pacts with gangsters, the services that citizens should be able to expect—security, housing, health care, transportation, access to water—become privileges that power can grant or deny. In some ways, in Christ Stopped at Eboli, Rosi is exploring the roots of this broken system, back to the remotest parts of the rural South, where Christ and the state never arrived.