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CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli) (director/writer: Francesco Rosi; screenwriter: from the autobiography by Carlo Levi; cinematographer: Pasqualino De Santis; editor: Ruggero Mastroianni; music: Piero Piccioni; cast: Gian Maria Volonté (Carlo Levi), Paolo Bonacelli (Don Luigi), Alain Cuny (Barone Nicola Rotunno), Lea Massari (Luisa Levi), Irene Papas (Giulia Venere), François Simon (Don Traiella); Runtime: 145; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Franco Cristaldi/Nicola Carraro; Facets Video; 1979-Italy/France-in Italian with English subtitles)
“Sentimentalizes the peasants to the point where we’re left looking too much at peasant culture as if this were a travelogue.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi (“Lucky Luciano”/”Three Brothers”/”Salvatore Giuliano”) adapts his screenplay from Carlo Levi’s 1945 autobiography (part personal reflections, part symbolic, part politically orientated and part cultural) telling about his two years in exile for his anti-fascist activism (Levi was a founding member of the Mussolini-baiting Giustizia e Libertà group). Though the rural drama offers an authentic and moving political story set against the barren landscape of southern Italy during an important historical time, it disappoints somewhat because it has little punch in its politics (not as much as one would expect from Rosi) and sentimentalizes the peasants to the point where we’re left looking too much at peasant culture as if this were a travelogue and the thing of most importance was capturing the local color and not analyzing the political ideology.

Dr. Carlo Levi (Gian-Maria Volonte) is a middle-aged prominent intellectual anti-fascist doctor, author and painter from Turin who, during Mussolini’s regime in 1935, was exiled for political reasons to the remote and primitive mountain village of Gagliano, in the Lucania region of southern Italy There are a few other urban political exiles there, but none as prominent. Thereby the smarmy but genial mayor Don Luigi (Paolo Bonacelli) treats him as a special guest with deep respect while still carrying out the fascist orders to keep the exile limited in his movements and censored in his letter writing and reading materials.

Don Carlo attracts an abandoned dog when he gets off the train at the Eboli station, and when the dog follows him as he takes a bus and then a car to his mountain village he adopts him (which becomes a heavy-handed metaphor for the film). The catchy title comes from the supposition that Christ never got off the train at Eboli, that rural Italy was too much of a burden even for God.

After idly walking around the village and meeting the locals, the bored Don Carlo is visited by his caring sister Luisa (Lea Massari). He relays to her his growing affection for both the desolate landscape and the spirit of the peasants to survive in such harsh conditions, and laments that there’s malaria present and many other ailments. Though Don Carlo studied medicine, he never practiced it but is almost forced to now because the two other doctors are quacks and the peasants demand his service. Sis convinces him that the right thing to do is to use his gift of medicine to help the needy, and get over his insecurities. Don Carlo’s most cheerful relationship is with his unmarried superstitious housekeeper Giulia (Irene Papas), who has a brood of children from many different fathers and while cleaning the house he rented gives him the opportunity to converse with her so he can understand the peasant’s simplistic way of thinking and their appreciation of the land. For intellectual company Don Carlo befriends the local priest, Don Traiella (François Simon), sent here as a banishment for supposedly bad church conduct–another way of saying he’s anti-fascist.

Volonté offers a finely nuanced thoughtful performance that connects us with the rural community in this tense time in modern Italian history. The film ends at the completion of the Abyssinian War (Italy invading Ethiopa) and as all the exiles in the village are freed except for the two that are Communists.

Rosi, through a leisurely pace, gives us a rough idea of how the urbane doctor adjusted to his isolation and felt more at home with the more earthy peasants than his middle-class peers (the professionals, police and politicians), who saw fascism as a chance to gain power and maintain a position above the peasants. We also see that the village’s crushing poverty induces many men to immigrate to America, often abandoning their families (the men talk more fondly of New York than they do of Rome, feeling cut off from their country’s ruling capital).

In Volonté’s satisfyingly quiet subtle performance, we are able to understand through his eyes the haunting sadness of the proud ancient place that has been oppressed for centuries economically and culturally to the point that the permanent exiles are the southern natives of this godforsaken region.

REVIEWED ON 12/24/2008 GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”