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Film

Outsiders Inside the State in Rosi's 'Christ Stopped at Eboli'

From Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) (Criterion)

Francesco Rosi's tale of peasant life in a remote part of fascist Italy challenges the notion of the State and the individual's role in and duty to its preservation.

Christ Stopped at Eboli
Francesco Rosi

Criterion

22 September 2020

Other

Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli) tracks the journey of painter Carlo Levi (Gian Maria Volonté), who has been made a confino; that is, he has been consigned by the fascist administration of Benito Mussolini in 1935 to "internal exile", banished from his hometown of Turino (a hotbed of anti-fascist activity) to a small village in the deep Southern part of Italy. The film is based on Levi's memoir of his stay (roughly a year and a half) in the town of Aliano (although both the memoir and the film substitute the town with the fictitious Gagliano) in the region then known as Lucania (now Basilicata) that occupies the "instep" of the Italian boot.

The town is remote from the infrastructure of most of modern Italy. There are few toilets (most inhabitants use chamber pots). The soil is unforgiving and near-barren; there is little vegetation or even rocks to slow the erosion that follows the occasional heavy rains. The buildings are in a state of advanced decay. They have a kind of moribund grandeur to them but seem to teeter eternally on the brink of collapse. The main cathedral was destroyed by the weather and the impossibility of proper maintenance.

Many citizens live in small dwellings carved out of a cave in the side of the hills. The people are plagued by malaria and the town supports only two, ill-equipped and somewhat incompetent doctors, an alcoholic priest exiled here owing to pedophilic behavior, and a mayor who cajoles the townspeople into venerating Mussolini and a modern Italy that they neither understand nor desire.

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The nearest railroad station is at Eboli, roughly 140 kilometers (or 87 miles) away. Given the near impassibility of many of the roads in the rural area (particularly in the aftermath of bad weather), it might as well be twice as far away. The village is not only remote with respect to spatial distance from the rest of Italy, it seems temporally remote as well. Gagliano and the Lucania region occupy a distant time. Levi calls it a time before cause and effect, a time before history.

The people of the region are, of course, aware of modernity. One denizen has a car (he thought it would be a great business opportunity but apparently he only give roughly two rides to people per month on average); a few have phonographs or radios. But these mechanical devices seem like mementos from another world or a distant future. They sit uncomfortably alongside the chamber pots, the movable tin bathtubs, the ancient farm equipment, and the worn-down religious icons and paraphernalia of folk superstition that suffuse the town.

The people here live in roughly the same feudal manner that has persisted for centuries in the region. Indeed, Levi even meets a man from the North who comes by a few times a year to collect rents and proselytize on behalf of the saints and the power of faith. Meanwhile, these people are subject to the same taxes as the remainder of the country (although they simply can't afford it; they are nearly all far below any reasonable poverty line) and the same laws as the rest of the country.

The latter demonstrates just how out of synch the region of Lucania is with the remainder of Italy. Mussolini's government had recently passed a law requiring the slaughter of goats in order to preserve vegetation and trees. But in Lucania there are precious few trees and few crops aside from olives grow in the region. The one thing they have in some minor abundance, the one true source of feasible wealth in the area, is goats. And yet, along with the rest of the country, they are required to slaughter those goats—essentially cutting their own throats in the process.

The locals have a saying that communicates their relegation to a mode of living seemingly surpassed by modernity: "Christ stopped at Eboli," meaning that historical advance reached no further south than the town of Eboli. Leaving the train station in Eboli and moving south toward Lucania, Levi boards a bus with peasants and chickens. The passengers speak in distinct southern dialects; Levi understands them but only barely. The man with the automobile appears at the bus stop to take Levi into town.

Gian Maria Volontè as Carlo Levi (Criterion)

The extended opening sequence documents Levi's multi-stage journey. He utters barely a word. He mostly just observes. We become accustomed to his patient gaze serving as a surrogate for our own. And perhaps this is the finest achievement of Francesco Rosi's film adaptation of Levi's memoir: it teaches us a kind of observational patience, a willingness to look before judging, to learn before assuming we know better.

Levi observes the townsfolk. He asks the mayor, Don Luigi Magalone (Paolo Bonacelli) about his views on fascism. He asks his housekeeper, a putative witch named Giulia (Irene Papas) about her superstitious beliefs in a variety of ghosts and angels, her reluctance to throw trash out at night in case it offends the guardian angel that stands at the door after dark. He asks but he doesn't attempt to refute. He even seems willing to at least gently borrow an incantation that resembles a prayer from Giulia.

The townspeople come to love and accept him. They seek him out as a doctor (he has a medical degree but little practical experience in the field—and yet he is soon viewed as more capable and certainly more willing than the local doctors). When the authorities deny him the right to practice, the townsfolk protest first by assembling as a shouting cadre outside the mayor's home and then by performing a bit of street theater lambasting the incompetence of the other doctors and the vain officiousness of the mayor.

Levi finds as much patience as he exudes; his gentle love for the peasants is returned by them. He comes increasingly to identify with them—not through class identification but rather through the ironic distance they seem to take with respect to Mussolini, the Italian State, and the current crises (including the colonial pursuit of Abyssinia or modern-day Ethiopia).

By the time he finally returns to Turin, the highest compliment he can think to give someone is to call them a "peasant", which he defines as someone who pursues the life they want to pursue because they want to pursue it—not because of some vaunted social or political commitment but rather through a commitment to living as well as one can given one's circumstances. It might be a somewhat naïve view, at least from the perspective of class struggle and political science, but it is intended as a view that honors the values of others without subordinating them to the values recognizable by the self.

(Criterion)

The majority of the running time of the film's three-hours and 40-minutes avoids saying most of this openly. We merely observe Levi observing; we observe his interactions and his patient love and his joy in small discoveries. It is only at the end, in a kind of coda to the film, that these themes are laid out in any discursive fashion. To the minds of some viewers (and maybe even to my mind), this has to be considered the weakest portion of the film.

So much of the film has relied upon showing that it seems like a moment of weakness to revert to telling. And yet, the coda—a conversation among four intellectual discussants, including Levi, concerning the proper role of the post-fascist state in relation to what is referred to as the "Southern Problem" (the fact that the South is woefully underdeveloped, the people uneducated and politically unsophisticated)—does what a coda ought to do: it offers a kind of summing up and indeed a concretization of the themes of the film.

The seeming leader of this small colloquy claims that fascism simply made the "Southern Problem" worse. By liberating the country from the taint of fascism, conditions in the South will inevitably improve. Levi fears that in its efforts to eradicate fascism in the South, the State would simply and inevitably resort to violence. Levi was never convinced that fascism had much of a foothold in the South (he saw the mayor as an entirely inefficacious proliferator of propaganda; all mentions of Mussolini fell on deaf ears); so, efforts to "eradicate" fascism in the South would already be operating under a grave misconception. Northern efforts to impose a new rule on the South would be seen, Levi implies, as just another form of forced occupation, tyranny, and control. A true revolution, Levi claims, requires a peasant revolution.

Another member of the conversation insists that the peasant is essentially no different from the proletarian. Thus, the worker revolution will essentially be a peasant revolution. Intriguingly, the man making this claim doesn't put it quite that way—he just proclaims that the peasant condition will improve when the proletariat takes control of the means of production. This is simply a reworking of the argument presented by the leader of the discussion.

Levi is still not convinced. The vision these men have of the State, he thinks to himself, is one that transcends the individual, transcends the population, or better—the various populations that live and dwell and procreate and die in Italy. This view of the State is ultimately paternalistic and remote—like a God that provides abstract salvation in some inscrutable manner but never appears, never becomes palpable.

(Criterion)

If the State insists upon unity above all else—a unity in which its remote superiority is always to be valued over the actual lives of the people living in Italy—if the State is always to be some looming but distant figure, out of touch and out of reach, then the difference between democracy and dictatorship breaks down. What difference does it make to the peasantry if their needs, their beliefs, their desires, their modes of living are meant to be sacrificed on the altar of State unity? The peasantry doesn't understand the demands of the State and their needs are not understood by that State. There is no communication and no true unity—if unity is intended to mean the coming together of various peoples within the State. But that is not, Levi suspects, what it means to these men or to pretty much anyone espousing the unity of the State as a preeminent concern.

Unity of the State implies the remoteness of the State, the distance from which it reigns sovereign. In Ancient theology (such as Plotinus) God is defined as the One, the truly integral. All things in God are unified in His holy being. But that unity derives, in part, from God's separation from the great disunity of creation. The world consists of many things—disunited but perhaps not irreconcilable. But reconciliation here cannot come from eradicating difference in the manner that all differences in God are absorbed into the larger unity and thus erased.

When the State becomes a substitute for God, reigning from a supreme and unbridgeable distance, calling out to its subordinates from across a chasm, it operates through censure and elimination—erasing the very differences that provide meaning to those living under the supervision of the State. The State purports to protect but it can only protect its own interests (which it holds paramount) by eradicating the difference that ought to be seen as constitutive of its power but is too often seen as a mere threat.

Levi clarifies his thinking by reversing the trajectory of the "problem". From the point of view of the peasant, the "Southern Problem" is more adequately termed the "State Problem". The problem, for Levi, extends beyond the distinctions between fascist and democratic states. The real problem is the conception of the State as such and the conception of the individual supposedly residing at the basis of that State. The State treats the individual as a kind of legal fiction—a closed off entity that can serve as the site of responsibility so that it can serve as the site of punishment. The State can only exist by exerting force.

Levi asserts that the individual is "a link, a meeting place of many relationships." In other words, the individual is a point but not the kind of point the State wants it to be. The State requires an absolute, mathematical point. No length and no depth, just pure location. Hence the importance of property ownership for a modern State. The State requires that you are locatable and that becomes your primary function. For if the State can find you, it can punish and discipline you. And if you are a mere point, pure individuality, then you are the bearer of responsibility. You owe allegiance to the State because the State gives you a location in which to exist and that is your sole reason for being.

Levi thinks of the individual through a different orientation to the point. Here the point is not pure location or the ground of location. The point here arises through an intersection of vectors. The individual is an intersection, a confluence of relationships and social forces and modes of being and modes of thought and religion (or the lack of it) and superstition (or the lack of it). The individual as confluence is the individual as a flowing together of impulses and influences—literally a "flowing together" of what "flows in".

That means that what I am is a flowing forth of what flowed into me, of the relationships I cultivate and even the relationships I avoid. I am the site of all those interactions as they intersected in me; I am the location of their intersection. That makes me not pure location but rather place. Pure location is nothing more than a coordinate in abstract space. Place is an environment in which I dwell, in which things "make sense", in which things have their place. I am the place where the meanings that have flowed into me have their place.

That requires a rethinking of the function of the State. The State can no longer be the abstract grid that encompasses a range of points. The State cannot be the primary form of autonomy, distant and whole and absorptive of everything subsumed by it. The State has to work to ensure the autonomy of all of those various places: the city, the factory, the banking systems, and the rural home of the peasants.

The State, by this understanding, would not simply orientate different places within its realm but rather would coordinate differing places, places where people live differently, where people may even presently occupy the distant past while others sit at the cusp of the future. This kind of State allows meaning to persist without reduction, it allows lives to progress without discerning functions in them suitable to the State. Such a State doesn't decide who lives rightly and who lives wrongly; it simply encourages lives to flow together and to flow onward.

***

Criterion Collection has released a Blu-ray edition of Christ Stopped at Eboli that restores it to its full length as the four-part film that was originally shown on RAI, the Italian television station that helped produce the film. It is a gorgeous print that quietly luxuriates in the atmosphere of the small Southern town and its charismatically battered buildings (full of past promise and present hazard), the rugged sincerity of the local citizenry, and the gorgeous expanses of the surrounding environment.

The edition includes several extras: an introduction to the film by translator Michael F. Moore, a documentary that originally aired on the French television series Cinè's discussing Rosi's contributions to political film, a segment from a French talk show featuring Rosi and Carlo Levi, and an excerpt from the 2014 documentary Unico that addresses Rosi's work with Volonté.

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