An old man is inflating a goat. After making an incision near the hoof, he blows hard to stretch the skin off the carcass. Nearby in the village, a young man leaves a plate of hot spaghetti on a stone wall. He whistles and another young man emerges from a doorway to retrieve the plate: they are communists who share meals but have been forbidden to associate. Elsewhere, a pack of young boys are throwing rocks at a shabby priest. A well-dressed man walks past all this, trailed by his dog, his eyes recording everything from the near distance.
These are the specific pleasures of Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, the director’s faithful 1979 adaptation of Carlo Levi’s chronicle of his exile in the Italian South during the years of fascism. Originally made for Italian television but cut down for theatrical release, the extended version of the film, now in its final day at Film Forum, is more attuned to the idea at the heart of the work: the difficulty of seeing, and the act of prolonged attention to things that might otherwise escape notice. It’s a long, slow, rich epic of the ordinary, taking time to dwell on the rhythms of rural life and on people left behind by their country. Its title refers to a saying that Levi heard repeated often in the South: everything below the town of Eboli was passed over, not just by God, but also “cut off from history and the State.” For Levi, Italy’s “Southern Question” is also a general inquiry into the relationship between those who hold power and those who could not even imagine exercising it.
Carlo Levi was a Jewish intellectual from Turin, born in 1902. He trained as a doctor but had no interest in practicing medicine. Instead, he found his calling as a painter—though it was politics that would overtake his life. As a member of the Justice and Freedom movement, a leading group in Italy’s antifascist resistance, he was first imprisoned by Mussolini’s government and then sent into internal exile in a tiny village of Aliano (renamed Gagliano in the book), as part of an official policy known as confino.
Eboli is the diary of a year spent among the peasants of the Basilicata region. Levi was shocked by the poverty he encountered: tenant farmers toiled for nothing while malaria ravaged their children. Somewhere between memoir, novel, and ethnography, the book belongs to a group of works that emerged from the absurdities of life under fascism, blending fact and fiction in innovative ways—especially the work of Natalia Ginzburg (a member of the same Turin circle also sent south) and the unreliable reportage of Curzio Malaparte. As Ginzburg put it in Family Lexicon (1963), with characteristic understatement: “truth and lies became all mixed up for me.”
Perhaps it is natural for painting and politics to converge in this uncertainty. Rosi’s film begins in the painter’s studio after his return from exile, and Levi, played with a wry gravitas by Gian Maria Volontè, contemplates his portraits of peasants made in Gagliano: “I could not keep the promise I made, when I said goodbye to my peasants, that I would return. And I do not know if or when I can keep it.” This broken promise is also an admission of the problem of representing their lives faithfully—he is unsure if it can ever really be done. But the film is structured as an attempt to do so, offering a gallery of portraits of the local characters: the disgruntled tax collector who longs to practice his clarinet, the housekeeper who promises to teach Levi witchcraft, the men who have returned after emigrating to America only slightly less poor than when they set off.
Rosi was a southerner himself, born in Naples in 1922, the year Mussolini took power. A protégé of Luchino Visconti, and with strong leftist sympathies, he took up the Neorealist project of searching for life as lived experience, which involved frequent use of non-actors, on-location shooting, and the stories of ordinary people. His films of the Sixties and early Seventies, such as Salvatore Giuliano (1962), Hands Over the City (1963), and The Mattei Affair (1972), went beyond Italian Neorealism’s emphasis on individual stories to investigate larger systems and networks of power: the court system, channels of governmental power, and organized crime—the smoke-filled backrooms where the decision-making process affecting thousands is rarely revealed. Rosi meticulously researched these dramas, building reenactments up from the facts, and occasionally coming uncomfortably close to the sources of corruption. A journalist assisting Rosi’s research for The Mattei Affair mysteriously disappeared while looking into mafia connections. The case has not been solved.
Depicting this opaque world often entailed using more circuitous forms. For instance, in Salvatore Giuliano, Rosi’s breakout film, the famous Sicilian bandit of the film’s title is barely present: murdered at the outset, he’s more a chalk outline than a character, as the movie spins a complex web of interactions between Sicilian separatists, the US government, and the mafia. Rosi denies the viewer the conventional pleasure of emotional investment in a hero’s arc, instead creating a kind of puzzle where fragments are presented out of chronological order. Some questions are left unanswered, their answers left for viewers to infer for themselves.
Rosi’s approach is to spark our curiosity: we gain a new understanding of a case of public corruption or a mafia conspiracy, but without being allowed the illusion that we fully grasp its intricacies. The story is never laid out as a true and complete explanation of all the secret talks, committee meetings, and double-dealing. Witnessing the intrigues, Rosi seems to say, is not to be confused with solving the political problems they pose. At times, this can make for frustrating viewing—it can be hard to tell if Rosi is running up against the limits of what a film can make intelligible, or if we are just creatures of comfort, unused to the film’s demands on our deductive powers.
Eboli is a different type of film, made later in Rosi’s career—perhaps its taking up of literary humanism reflects the desire for a different approach to docudrama. The viewing experience is eased by having a single protagonist whom we follow, his point of view becoming a surrogate for ours. The style is more restrained, using long shots of the rural landscape, and holding a focus on the peasants as they recount their stories, an approach in line with Levi’s desire for human connection. But Levi is not, at first, a hero; he would prefer to spend his days as a kind of artist-flâneur, wandering Gagliano’s streets and environs, looking for subjects to paint. In particular, he wishes to avoid representatives of Gagliano’s petite bourgeoisie, like the fascist mayor who keeps peasants from their work to be a captive audience for his speeches about Italy’s imperial war in Ethiopia.
The imperatives of the film’s action intervene, however: a number of people in the town are sick or dying, and they suspect that Levi is likely to be a better doctor than the local quacks, who are mostly concerned with extracting payment. Action begets insight: practicing medicine brings Levi more fully into Gagliano’s society as he steps over thresholds that he would otherwise have little reason to cross.
Levi’s book is linked to a tradition of exile-writing that extends back to Ovid, but Italy’s prewar and wartime confino introduces a unique element: though Levi is an exile, he is still writing from his own country. His term in Gagliano is an imprisonment of sorts, but it also becomes the record of an urban intellectual forced into contact with a part of his country he had never even thought of before. Levi’s outsider status gives the book’s reader or the viewer of Rosi’s film access to moments that might never have been invested with “artistic value”—the winter castration of female pigs (involving a graphic removal of the ovaries) becomes a near-mythic event—while also questioning whether the artist’s presence is really the origin of the value. When he leaves, the people remain. The film, coming later, doubles Levi’s distance: Eboli is also a dispatch from a world about to change irrevocably, and is dedicated to a kind of local pleasure in the shadow of its disappearance: bread, a bit of music, a drink with old friends.
Returning to the city, Levi finds himself unable to relate the precise quality of this experience to his fellow northern intellectuals. He listens despairingly to their confident declarations about how Italy’s “Southern Question” will be solved and the distant, backward lives of the peasantry improved. For his part, Levi comes to conclusions that are far from the technocratic ideas of the social reformers, and are in fact nearly anarchist, with a marked distrust for the impersonal state that has no feel for place and personality: “The individual is not a separate unit, but a link, a meeting place of relationships of every kind,” he insists. “The individual and the State coincide in theory and they must be made to coincide in practice as well, if they are to survive.”
How this radical transformation is to be achieved remains in Rosi’s film characteristically elusive. It is easier to film a person than it is to film a state. Eboli tests our ideas of who and what we can know, but provides some clues as to how we might come to know more. In one of the movie’s climactic moments, the whole town gathers in the seldom-used church for the traditional Christmas evening mass. The priest, perhaps drunk, forgets his sermon and falters. The mayor and his blackshirts are outraged, jeer at him, and the uproar is later used as grounds to have him fired. This moment of communal gathering, where we might have expected some clarity or wisdom to be dispensed, is fleeting, fractured from the start. It suggests a microcosm, but it is ultimately too chaotic to point to any meaning or conclusion. As long as state and individual do not coincide, there is still more to learn from the individual. Though we are accustomed to looking at the human face on screen, perhaps, Rosi suggests, we need to look a little longer and closer.
Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli is playing at Film Forum through May 2.