Christ stopped at Eboli. Where the road and train abandon the coast and the sea, and venture into the wastelands of Lucania. Christ never came here. Nor did time, the individual soul, or hope, nor did cause and effect, reason or history. […] Christ never descended.
In Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), one of the first impressions we get of the Lucania region is hopelessness. Carlo Levi, a turinese painter recalls, in flashback, his experience in exile: during the time of Mussolini, he is expelled from Torino due to his anti-fascist activities and sent to the south, to live in a small town Aliano in the Lucania region. He encounters a land of disease, poverty, and distrust – from a people abandoned and all-but-forgotten by the state.
Director Francesco Rosi is no stranger to the political, having exposed the collusive infrastructure of Neopolitan bureaucrats in 1963’s Hands over the City (Le mani sulla città). This earlier documentary-style drama follows councilmen and developers as they call the shots in a real estate deal, and the literal fallout from a tragic building accident that transpires. The citizenry and residents, those actually impacted from all this, are nameless and secondary to the political puppeteers running the show.
The staggering disconnect between the ruling and the ruled is the tension bubbling throughout Christ Stopped at Eboli. During Levi’s time in Lucania, he witnesses firsthand the impact the fascist state has on a rural community, without representation or autonomy.
Even in the film’s opening, Levi expresses responsibility, if not guilt, for those he encounters in the South. We are first introduced to Levi as an older man, alone at home, surrounded by his paintings. From his speech, we gather these are real people he’s met or has known. His words and tone seem filled with a sort of regret, or disappointment in himself. He’s left a promise unfulfilled, to return to a place and to people who needed him.
Levi, and most of the film’s lead characters, are presented as having agency, privilege, or power of some sort, and the question ultimately is how (or whether) they choose to exercise that.
Levi is transported southward for his exile, and gets off the train at Eboli to transfer into a car. At the train station, a dog is sitting in place, almost as though it were waiting for someone. Levi comes to it and looks at his name tag (Barone), inscripted with a note: “May he who finds me care for me.” Levi smiles and walks away. Before Levi steps into the car though, Barone has caught up with him, and Levi decides to take him along.
Levi, a political, presumably well-educated and intellectual turinese, instinctively does not take up the invitation to help someone who needs him – but when the situation posits itself a second time, and given time to reflect, he agrees to help.
Later on in his exile, Levi’s sister Luisa, also a doctor, is permitted to come visit. She criticizes Levi for spending his time painting, and not contributing back by practicing medicine, despite having studied it. She, as a visitor, gains the people’s trust by treating children with malaria, and meeting the needs of the community. Levi’s own skill and expertise in medicine is being squandered, she argues, in pursuit of art and isolation.
Levi’s gifts of medicine, to heal the sick and repair life, are all the more striking in a landscape and community so crippled with decay, death, and disease. When he first comes to town, many of the doors are adorned with black ribbons – some neatly strung up, others barely hanging in place. He asks what they mean, and someone replies that they are the ribbons used from funeral wreaths; the families of the deceased hang them up, and they stay there until they naturally fall off. Once this custom is explained, it is all the more striking, and devastating, to see how nearly every house has a black ribbon at its entry.
As he gets acquainted with his temporary home, Levi explores around Aliano. When he approaches the outskirts, a guard advises him: the furthest he can wander is to the cemetary, per the terms of his exile. Once he’s reached there, Levi encounters the groundskeeper, who says “this town is built on the bones of the dead.” The only way out is literal death, and the living are surrounded by it, whether on the ground beneath them, in their homes with the sick, and even on the fronts of their houses.
Decay and destruction fundamentally permeate the landscape of Aliano. Levi stumbles upon an older, much more impressive cathedral than the humble central church in the main piazza. The older church is all but ruins though, abandoned and the town’s youth have burned it into a sort of shanty playground. The parish priest tells him the old church is no longer safe – when it rains, the earth gives way because there are no trees or rocks to hold it into place. Not only are the infrastructures abandoned and rotting in place, but the very foundations supporting them are unstable and crumbling away.
The lack of support is not merely edificial and physical, however; the Lucania region is all but forgotten and abandoned by the unitary fascist state of 1930s Italy, in which the political and economic constraints set by Rome are worlds away from the impoverished agrarian society of Aliano.
The already-poor community is trapped in a cycle of poverty due to taxation from the state. The tax collector, himself from Lucania, faces opposition and even hatred from the townspeople. He’s not surprised why he’s so vilified, and understands the toll this takes on his community, but at the end of the day he has a job to do. The people do their best to reclaim what little agency they do have. In a somewhat shocking scene, the townspeople slaughter all their goats – justified, they say, because the government has put a tax on goats, so they “have” to kill them all. In the north, where the power players would have set this regulation, goats are “no good,” but they need them in the south. A demanding tax on their way of life, set by a distant governing body, forces them to react, to any extreme.
The poverty of the Mezzogiorno is a vicious cycle, bound by constraints and rules set by a unitary government worlds away from their lifestyle. Even local actors, whether the tax collector or the mayor, are complicit at best, or culpable at worst, in perpetuating the economic plight the town is trapped within. Without a localized infrastructure or support network, they are bound by rules from an out-of-touch central government.
This disconnect comes to even further light during a meeting between Levi and Don Luigi Magalone, the mayor of Matera, a bigger nearby town. He’s read the letters Levi sends to his sister Luisa while in exile, and advises him to destroy it for the ideas and claims Levi has made. In his letter, Levi has written that the people do not belong to a political party, and that they view Rome and the state as a problem to endure. Levi counters that the people see the contemporary invasion and war in Africa as “someone else’s history,” not one of the peasants. It is a battle waged by someone else, for their own ends, and not those of Lucania.
At each level, from the micro-local to regional to global, the need for self-determination and local autonomy to combat an oppressive unitary state continues to surface. The conflicts between Aliano and the bigger town Matera, and up to Rome, are concurrent with Italy’s imperialist invasion of Ethiopia, a move the mayor claims is to conquer and obtain more “living space” – albeit fighting a war the peasants never asked for. The Rome of this time exercises its political, military, and oppressive might over all levels of government, whether invading another continent, or exploiting its own citizenry.
In the film’s epilogue, Levi is back in Turin, having been freed from his exile. He is having a conversation with others, presumably other anti-Fascist leaders with whom he worked before his exile. One of his colleagues says “the south is a dead weight,” moving Levi to speak out in its defense; he argues what the south needs is autonomy of the individual and institution, rather than being placed under a unitary system, whether a democracy or dictatorship. This scene, of assumedly well-educated intellectual northerners discussing political theory and policy is one in which the elite, and those with agency, deciding among themselves what’s best for the country as a whole. Following Levi’s experience firsthand, having seen the disconnect between the state and the community, his leanings have shifted from supporting a strong central government to one of self-determination and local autonomy.
Whatever internal revelation Levi has had, though, we are left to wonder what long-term good it did. Levi admits in the film’s prologue that he never goes back to Lucania. Upon his return to the north, he does defend the south and its self-perpetuating predicament, but it’s unclear whether this support transcended the theoretical into becoming actionable. Perhaps it fits with the cynical view of Rosi’s other works, of those in power being fundamentally out of touch with the less privileged; or, given that he’s telling their story, through painting, writing, and debate, perhaps the responsibility falls on the collective us to listen, learn, and act, now that we’ve found them. “May he who finds me care for me.”