Francesco Rosi’s adaptation of Carlo Levi’s memoirs is newly restored and relevant as ever: a testament to the importance of including the poor in the left’s political struggle
Democracy can not, by definition, serve the needs of the upper class because otherwise, it might drive the masses to opportunistic leaders. It’s not a new idea, but one that remains at the epicenter of today’s political situation everywhere. Centrist governments continue to betray the demands of the lower classes and side with the establishment. Our world remains split between the concerns of academia-reared radicals and people who want a decent paycheck, although there were too many occasions to understand what’s wrong with this situation. A revival via restoration of “Christ stopped at Eboli,” Francesco Rosi’s screen adaptation of Carlo Levi’s memoirs, is a very timely release. An honest portrayal of the forgotten Italian South before World War II, it shows the way an epoch’s politics are reflected in the lives of the regular people. As it unfolds, the film becomes a staunch call for inclusive struggle.
Carlo Levi was a painter and activist who was sent by Mussolini’s government into exile for his anti-fascist politics. Arriving in a small village of Eboli in the South of Italy in the mid-1930s, Levi found himself among people that his anti-fascist pals would dismiss as lumpenproletariat. Due to the terms of the exile, he was not allowed to communicate with the other political deportees. Meanwhile, the non-banished elites of Eboli offered him the slim pickings of a bunch of loyal fascists and a liberal priest who had been sent to live in Eboli for molesting children.
These circumstances, as well as his sister’s insistence, propelled Levi to acquaint himself with the peasants of the village. A doctor by education, although he never practiced elsewhere, Levi soon got to healing them and gained the people’s trust. In turn, they taught him scores about their humanity: that beneath the layers of superstition and tradition are intelligent people with a keen sense of dignity. And that they can be as suspicious of the bravado politics of Mussolini as any ideological leftist. The only difference is that the peasants have less autonomy to exercise their doubts. This is, as the film shows, due to the socio-economic challenges of a region ravaged by poverty and the depletion of the male population by wars and immigration.
The film is 3.5 hours long, or rather an uncut assemblage of three 1+ hour parts. But you can barely feel the heft because of the many splendors that it offers. First of all, Eboli is strikingly beautiful, and watching its landscapes, as well as the hilly city streets throughout the seasons, is awe-inspiring. Then, the acting is exemplary. Gian Maria Volonte is utterly convincing in his wide-eyed human curiosity for life and his political resolve—the actor was an ardent communist in real life. Lea Massari compels with her calm and very humane intelligence in the role of Levi’s sister.
Meanwhile, Irene Pappas as the only woman in the village who can afford to work for an unmarried man, because her reputation is already dismal, is stunning. Composed of equal parts of raw femininity, reverent timidity and a spirit of independence, she emerges as Levi’s equal. The relationship between the two of them is jarring but masterfully portrayed. And the rest of the cast, the people who play the villagers,—from the smallest children to bent-over old ladies,—are all independently important, even in the most minor parts, as the film reflects its politics.
Most importantly, “Christ stopped at Eboli” is a remarkable anthropological portrayal of the times. Apart from the relationships of characters with the Mussolini regime, the many layers of Italian life observed are the things that make the country what it is today. It’s fascinating to watch through the prism of Italy’s contemporary relationship with migration. Today’s refugees are created in the background, as Italy wins the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Meanwhile, Italian men share their experiences of desperation-driven migration to the US from which they returned, in a reversal of fortunes. Francesco Rosi’s plea, as Carlo Levi’s one before him, was astounding. Too bad, no one listened.
Christ Stopped At Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), 1979
Director: Francesco Rosi