With Christ Stopped at Eboli, Francesco Rosi Gave Carlo Levi the Final Word

Movies Features Francesco Rosi
With Christ Stopped at Eboli, Francesco Rosi Gave Carlo Levi the Final Word

Defining Italy is harder than one may think. A geographic peninsula? Of course. A country in Southern Europe? Seems undeniable. But what makes a country? People, governments, languages, shared history? If that’s the case, then Italy is more nebulous than it ostensibly seems—and much, much more modern than the myth that it built for itself in the barely 160 years that the state as we understand it today has existed. 

Since the Middle Ages, the Italian Peninsula has been a patchwork of city-states and barely mutually intelligible dialects, with some areas ruled by local monarchies and others by a host of foreign empires. Italy (and to the Romans, the rest of the world) was once centered on Rome; the peninsula had become disjointed and diffuse in the wake of its collapse. It wasn’t until 1848, when nationalist revolutions swept across Europe, that the idea of an “Italian” state was really born, and the next two decades were driven by the turmoil of unifying the politically, economically, and culturally diverse peninsula into one nation. 

The period known as Risorgimento ended with the newly formed country capturing Rome in 1870, birthing an era of confused hegemony from a social order that couldn’t decide if they were liberals or monarchists, the new Romans or an old oppressed peoples, one social order or many small tribes pretending to play along with the latest game of statecraft by some high-minded elites in far-off palaces. As the years went on, these questions became more contradictory and less legal to ask. The burgeoning state had physically unified Italy, now they needed to do it mentally. The Florentine dialect, immortalized in the writings of Dante, became the lingua franca, and Italian went from innumerable little languages into a single one imposed on everyone. Barely 50 years old, Italy fell into the fervor of fascism, attempting to solidify a mythic identity while at the same time suppressing what was real, fighting a war of nations instead of focusing on its people. 

It is this mythic Italy that is upended by Christ Stopped at Eboli, both Carlo Levi’s memoir and Francesco Rosi’s 1979 film adaptation. In 1935, Levi was sent by the fascist government to internal exile, from his home of Turin in the wealthy, industrious north of the country to Matera in the heart of Lucania (modern day Basilicata—the shank of the Italian boot), one of the most remote regions of the south. An anti-fascist, Levi was kept prisoner in different towns until the war in Abyssinia ended in 1936. 

A painter and writer by trade, Levi was also trained in medicine, although he never practiced. Reluctantly, he becomes the doctor for the malaria-swept region, an invaluable pillar in the community (as does the dog he picks up, the famous Barone, whom many see as simultaneously a stray and a noble baron in his own right). At least, an invaluable pillar for the peasants. For the local fascist government, this makes him even more of a nuisance, although the mayor, Don Luigi, takes a kind of liking to Levi because of his class standing. It’s through Don Luigi, too, that Levi starts to develop his ideas about problems more intrinsic to Italy than just who rules it: There are always far-off politicians, but it is the local hierarchies that keep people oppressed; petit bourgeois mayors like Don Luigi have been around as long as there have been peasants. 

It is interesting that Rosi’s adaptation of Christ Stopped at Eboli, especially the near four-hour TV version, is often cited as being “novelistic” when the book it is based on is anything but. Levi’s memoir is as much a work of anthropology or philosophy as it is a personal story. It is told from his own perspective, but with the wandering thoughts of a man almost 10 years removed from his memories. There are long passages about peasant beliefs in dragons, pilgrimages to and symbolism of madonnas, and the concept of Italy itself. If it is a memoir, it is one more of thought than action. In this sense, Levi’s book is surprisingly unfilmable.

What Rosi does is play Christ Stopped at Eboli straight. Aside from the prologue in an older Levi’s apartment, where he begins to reminisce on his exile in the South, there is no narration. The long dialectic passages of Levi’s novel are turned into genuine scenes of dialogue, some ripped from the book and others invented, with Levi’s argumentative positions turned into on-screen characters. And where the book lives in the slow fluidity of memory, the film takes on the languidity of the present, where Levi (played brilliantly by the outspokenly left-wing Gian Maria Volonté) wanders around ancient towns collecting thoughts from those he passes by. 

In doing so, Rosi adds a certain symbolic subtlety that is presented more outright in the book. For instance, Levi often highlights the “black eyes” of the southern peasants, which look upon him with equal mystery to how he looks back at him. He folds that image (and others) of the people into the landscape, most strikingly when he describes the doorways of the ancient Sassi di Matera, houses carved into the rock face that could be continuously inhabited for 9,000 years: 

“When I lifted my eyes to see the way I had come, I at last saw the whole of Matera, in the form of a slanting wall. From here it seemed almost like a real town. The facades of the caves were like a row of white houses; the holes of the doorways stared at me like black eyes. The town is indeed a beautiful one, picturesque and striking.” 

At this point in Christ Stopped at Eboli, Levi is really only able to understand the beauty from a distance. He is an onlooker into something he appreciates but does not understand. It seems at this point that the writer could be falling into the same trap that Christ Stopped at Eboli tries to break with regards to the “southern question,” or the issue of the extreme poverty and social difference in the south compared to the north of Italy. Here he seems to be framing Matera with the same exoticism that many northerners use to speak of the South, but it is through the course of the memoir that Levi starts to become genuinely closer with the people of Lucania. 

Rosi’s film never quite reaches the same emotional closeness as Levi’s book. The image glides between careful compositions and breathtaking landscape shots, but when it gets in close it is only what can be externalized: Words, faces, expressions. Simultaneously the most beautiful and devastating sequence in the film is when the war in Abyssinia is announced to be ending. Uncharacteristically, the speech is given in voiceover, as if heard from an imaginary, godly radio, while the camera soars past rolling hills with peasants paused in their work as they look up at the sound of church bells. They are frozen in time, toiling away at the same thing they have done for thousands of years as the world has left them behind, imagining a new empire while they have forgotten about the real people in their own borders. 

There is always a distance in Rosi’s film, from how far the camera is shooting to how much he allows us to get inside Levi’s head. In the TV cut, there is a constant reframing towards the present by having the credits run over one of Levi’s paintings, a peasant child with deep black eyes looking back over their shoulder. The prologue suggests that this is an image that Levi himself is caught pondering, leaving us to ponder the image repeatedly with every successive hour—the viewer is asked to look back on Levi’s memories the same way that he does. Whereas Christ Stopped at Eboli the book is Levi’s treatise on Italy’s problems and revelations towards a new solution, Rosi’s film is an invitation to participate in that process. 

Christ Stopped at Eboli ends in an epilogue in Turin. It’s 1937, and the dissidents have returned home. Here, like in the book, we get Levi’s conclusion on what is needed, and his final dissatisfaction with the others in the opposition. The dialogue in his head becomes a literal conversation between intellectuals, with the usual paternalistic ideas of socialism deriving from the state as being the solution to the “problem of the South.” Levi interjects that the state is the issue, has always been the issue, and that to dismantle the problems of Italy they need to throw away these old ideas of governance, which are the same hierarchies between the local petit bourgeois and the peasants as the citizens are to the government: “The name of this way out is autonomy.” Levi explains the “organic federation,” the radical ground-up approach he believes is necessary for people to liberate themselves—not one unifying hegemony, but many collectives. “The autonomy or self-government of the community cannot exist without the autonomy of the factory, the school, and the city, of every form of social life. This is what I learned from a year of life underground.”

Released right at the end of WWII, Levi’s book pushed the “southern question” back into the forefront of post-fascist politics. It was not a problem that would be solved. As time went on, Levi’s observation of both the left and right’s obsession with the state felt more and more prescient. When Rosi’s adaptation was released in 1979, Italy was in the darkest days of the Years of Lead, that era of extreme political violence from the furthest wings of both left and right (not even a year earlier was Aldo Moro abducted and assassinated by the Red Brigades). Both versions of Christ Stopped at Eboli are a call to reframe the question, and in Rosi’s conclusion he lets Levi speak for himself, stressing the importance of some words ringing true through the decades but not listened to closely enough. It reveals both a political alignment of the two artists, as well as the trick Rosi has been playing throughout the entire film: The act of adaptation is a heightening. The way Rosi’s camera wanders the landscape, seemingly losing itself in thought, makes the long, interspersed conversation sequences seem all the more important. Often the dialogues are not centered on Levi, he is mostly listening to the others speak; in the film, the author of the book gets the final word.

Alex Lei is writer and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore. He can usually be found on Twitter.

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