Sunday, October 19, 2014

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Many of Francesco Rosi's films study the Italian Mafia.  On first viewing, the understated, anthropological Christ Stopped at Eboli seems an exception:  the film adapts a memoir by Carlo Levi.  In 1935, Levi was sent as a political prisoner to a remote and impoverished hill-town in southern Italy.  The region is badlands, severely eroded mountain slopes, a place so abject that local people said that when Jesus visited Italy, he "stopped at Eboli" -- that is, refused to venture into miserable territory where Levi is exiled.  Trained as a doctor, Levi was an aesthete, a painter, poet, and man of sensibility.  The villagers are friendly to Levi, instinctively insurgent, an enemies of Rome -- we have always been oppressed, the villagers say, first by Aeneas and his Trojans, then, by the Romans, and, now, by the Fascist government under Il Duce, a regime that the people call "the Piedmontese."  Levi is importuned to treat the sick and dying in the village and, despite his hesitancy, he becomes beloved as a local doctor.  History is remote from the picturesque but ruinous village -- people listen to broadcasts of Mussolini's speeches and we see one boy departing for war in Abyssinia, but, otherwise, life is governed by ancient rhythms of religion and labor.  The radio tells the people that the Italian army is triumphant and has entered Addis Ababa and Rosi marks the occasion with a rapturous extended tracking motion, the camera gliding over the denuded hills and badlands, past black-clad peasants who stand like statues immobile in their small, desolate fields.  Levi is pardoned for whatever offense resulted in house arrest and exile.  (Several sorrowful-looking communists are not pardoned and must remain in exile.)  He says goodbye to the villagers and returns to the North, leaving town on a day when rain and sunshine battle one another, departing in the single vehicle operating in the region.  The narrative is presented as a flashback, as Levi's memories many years later, after the end of World War II, thoughts triggered by the old man looking at paintings that he made of children in the village.  Rosi borrows many techniques from spaghetti Westerns -- the flashback structure creates a nostalgic effect that is similar to the mood in some of Sergio Leone's movies and there are ancient trains chugging across eroded landscapes, huge close-ups of handsome men or eccentrics (particularly noteworthy is a bearded giant -- "the sow doctor") and vast barren landscapes:  Rosi uses shock cuts to flocks of birds suddenly disturbed or flags being unfurled.  The film often is composed, shot and edited like Once upon a Time in the West and this impression is heightened by the lead actor, the remarkably handsome and charismatic Gian Maria Volonte, a leading man who is also featured in many Italian-made Westerns.  Christ Stopped at Eboli is sentimental -- there is a stray dog who accompanies the hero -- and episodic.  There is no overriding theme and the film is constructed from observations as to village life.  The villagers are superstitious -- they believe in mischievous spirits (unbaptized babies) and treat illness with a variety of folk remedies, for instance, a woman manages pain by lying in bed with a coin on her forehead.  The town's mayor is the only other educated fellow in the region and he is a Fascist -- there are long polemical exchanges between the two men that slow the film to a standstill.  The villagers regard New York as the great city of the world and many of them have lived there, praising America as the place where they all would live if possible -- most of the town's men of marriageable age have emigrated to New York and the villagers are mostly elderly men, widows in austere black, and babies.  (Despite their praise for New York, the peasants despise the cold porcelain toilets in America and recall with ecstatic joy an excursion into the countryside where they were able to let down their trousers to defecate in the open air.)  Rosi's film is very gentle -- there is no violence and even conflicts between the Fascists and their opponents are muted, collegial, and non-confrontational.  At one point, the Mayor threatens to have carabinieri shoot down some protestors in the town's wretched piazza, but the conflict is quickly defused by Levi who wants to avoid a massacre.  The town priest, who is a drunk maimed by isolation in the remote village, bravely preaches against the war in Abyssinia -- the Fascists march out of the church enraged, but there are no further consequences; after all, the priest is regarded as a person of ill-repute in any event.  The film is long, elegant, beautifully acted and spectacularly filmed:  it seems inconsequential and exceptionally subtle -- most of what is happening is hidden beneath the surface.  At the heart of the film is a consideration of the local institution of "brigandage" -- that is, banditry -- and it is this theme that links the movie to Rosi's great films about the Mafia.  In this village, improbably studding a high, barren ridge, the only meaningful resistance to oppression is petty criminality -- theft and highway robbery apparently encouraged by the Church.  At the edge of the village, there are three high stakes on which the heads of brigands were once impaled.  The village is like the impoverished landscape where the mafia-bandit Salvatore Giuliano operates in Rosi's masterpiece of that name set in Sicily -- the culture seems to be the same.  Rosi is a great, if baffling filmmaker -- his movies seem universal in their footage of sky and field and peasants marching in the dawn to their work, but they are so intimately rooted in the history and culture of Italy as to be a bit inscrutable to an outsider.    

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