During the 1930s, an Italian leftist named Carlo Levi was sent into political exile at a dismal southern town called Eboli. To the north, Mussolini continued to pile up power and prestige. To the south, Italian troops poured into Ethiopia to wage imperialist war. But in Eboli, time seemed to have stopped. To Levi, the place seemed virtually pre-Christian in its simplicity and primitiveness. "Christ Stopped at Eboli," he wrote in a book of that title, suggesting that the moral struggles of the poverty-stricken Italian peasant were still conducted on a level more physically than spiritually attuned.
Levi's odyssey through the hearts and minds of this peasantry is the subject of Francesco Rosi's latest film, which is popularly known as "Eboli," presumably to distinguish it from the movies about the life of Jesus that circulate during the Easter season. It is a slow saga, with a steady and gradual rhythm. It is best viewed as a meditation, not a conventional drama. Yet it carries considerable force, in the issue it raises and in the static beauty of its images.
The film begins with Levi's voyage to Eboli. He adopts a dog along the way, and must receive mayoral permission to keep it. On his arrival, he finds himself surrounded by inordinately simple peasants, as well as a few political prisoners. These include a pair of communists who are not allowed to talk to each other -- because "pass the spaghetti" might subvert the state, as Levi dourly observes.
Soon the people discover that Levi has a medical degree. He has never practiced medicine, and has no desire to do so, but his doesn't stop his countrymen from immediately relying on him to solve every manner of health problem. In the meantime, he ponders the tragedies being visited on Italy by its fascist rulers, debates the state of affairs with his sister (a practicing physician) when she comes to visit, and waits for the day when he can return to normal Italian life, enriched yet saddened by his sojourn in the hinterland.
As a story, "Eboli" does not wholly succeed, because it focuses too closely and exclusively on the character of Levi himself, around whom every other element of the film seems to revolve. Partly as a consequence of this, Levi's generally meek personality becomes too dominant a force, and appears too self-consciously saintlike. This is accentuated by the passive portrayal of Gian Maria Volonte in the leading role.
Still "Christ Stopped at Eboli" is an absorbing and sometimes stunningly beautiful movie, with an impressive sense of historical detail and social insight. At its best, it is provocative and instructive.