Mike Sutton takes a look at Infinity Arthouse’s release of Francesco Rosi’s magnificent “Christ Stopped At Eboli”. Great film, disappointing transfer.
”Christ did stop at Eboli, where the road and the railway leave the coast and turn into the desolate reaches of Lucania. Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause and effect, nor reason, nor history. No one has come to this land, except as an enemy, a conqueror or a visitor devoid of understanding. The seasons pass today over the toil of the peasants, just as they did 3,000 years before Christ. To this shadowy land, that knows neither sin nor redemption from sin, where evil is not moral but is only the pain residing forever in earthly things Christ did not come. Christ stopped at Eboli.”
Christ Stopped At Eboli exerts a quite remarkable emotional force, pulling us back into another time and place with a quiet, unobtrusive skill. The setting – rural Italy in the 1930s – is completely alien to us yet somehow, through the transcendent skill of director Francesco Rosi, the film makes us feel a nostalgic yearning for something we have never experienced. It’s as impressive a piece of work as the great Italian filmmaker ever produced and considering that he also made Salvatore Giuliano, Three Brothers, The Mattei Affair, Illustrious Corpses and Hands Over The City, that’s high praise indeed.
In 1935, the painter Carlo Levi was arrested in Turin for his anti-fascist activities – he was a founding member of the Mussolini-baiting Giustizia e Libertà group – and, as was the practice, sent to a remote area of rural Italy to muse upon his transgressions well away from the company of urban intellectuals. During his period of exile in the Lucania region he observed a way of life which was so remote from his experience as to be completely alien. He did a good deal of painting and opened a small surgery, making use of the skills which he had gained as a medical student at University. The time he spent in exile had a profound effect on his social conscience and confirmed his left-wing leanings – views which led to his imprisonment in 1941 and later saw him run as an independent Communist candidate in the 1963 Senate elections.
Christ Stopped At Eboli is based on his 1945 book about the experience of exile and is a reasonably faithful adaptation, give or take some minor fabrications such as an expendable introductory scene at Eboli station which Levi never visited. What it captures beautifully is the sense of discovery for a Northern Italian borgeouise such as Levi when he comes to the town of Gagliano (the fictional name for the real village of Aliano). Levi is sensitive and politically aware enough to know of the problem of the South, even before it came to the attention of the Northern Government but to live day to day with the grinding povery suffered by the villagers is a revelatory experience. We feel that as viewers we are discovering the village with him – its small joys, its many sorrows, the bewildering range of superstitions and customs – and that Francesco Rosi is finding his own joy in the discovery of the small town. The villagers have wonderful faces and an inimitable body language that blends in perfectly with the professional actors in the speaking parts. What makes Rosi’s eye distinctive is his resolution to understand and absolute refusal to either sentimentalise or patronise. It would be easy to make us weep for the day to day sufferings of these people and it would have been equally simple to make fun of them. But Rosi presents them as they are. Death and pain are facts of life. Similarly, even the most ridiculous character – the would-be fascist Mayor undone by his own sense of humanity – is given dignity and their own humour which is not imposed by the director. Rosi adores these people and so do we. The work of his long-time cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis is vital here, turning a barren, dusty landscape into a vista of human fascination.
The title comes from the notion that Christ never got any further than Eboli, that rural Italy was too much even for God, yet the impression which Christ Stopped At Eboli creates is one of deep, abiding spirituality and a good deal of this comes out of Gian Maria Volonte’s performance. Volonte was always a great actor, capable of an uncomfortable intensity which makes it hard to take your eyes off him, but I think this is one of his best parts because he submerges his own powerful personality into a character who is required, for much of the film, to be very passive. Volonte makes Levi a patently good man, flawed but striving to love the people around him and he has an inner serenity which is rarely broken – there’s one scene with his sister where he cracks and we see the frustration which could so easily take him over. Levi is the still centre around which the film revolves and through whose memory we are seeing events.
The prologue, when Levi is old and saddened by age and experience, suggests the inevitable association of memory with loss and it makes the final scene of the film very moving indeed, as we see the village receding from view through the rain-flecked back window of a car as if becoming irretrievably lost amongst the detritus of a life.
Rosi has often been a political filmmaker, sometimes stridently so as in Salvatore Giuliano, and Christ Stopped At Eboli is certainly a political film, although in a lower register. It’s about how peasant communities get cut-off from an urban government which cares little for their problems and is more concerned with ludicrous imperial dreams, represented here by Mussolini’s attempt to conquer Abyssinia. History ceases to matter for these people because history, as represented by the state and the wider population, has forgotten about them. Rosi condemns, in a quiet way, the dehumanising nature of fascism in its attempt to suppress the individual voice and mould a nation into two distinct groups of superior insiders, the haves, and inferior outsiders, the have-nots. So this is a defiant cry for the preciousness of humanity and the individualisation of poverty which could otherwise (and often is) be reduced to statistics. What Levi discovers in this forgotten area of the world is his own identity reflected in the faces of the people he meets and when he goes, he leaves something of himself behind which he can never regain.
Infinity Arthouse are doing some fine work in releasing the best of foreign cinema on UK DVD. However, some of their discs are beset by technical problems – Night of the Shooting Stars which I’ll be reviewing soon is a case in point – and Christ Stopped At Eboli is no exception. It’s not as disastrous as it is with the Taviani disc, but it’s rather irritating.
Please note this is not a two-disc set as originally announced.
The film is presented in fullscreen format which is the correct framing as it was originally made for Italian television. The full four hour version was released in the UK by Artificial Eye on VHS back in the 1990s but what we get here is a 145 minute abridgement that is some ten minutes shorter than the version shown in British cinemas. The transfer is afflicted by ghosting, suggesting an NTSC-PAL job (the running time is identical to that of the 2002 US disc), and major artifacting problems throughout, rendering some of the darker interior scenes almost unwatchable – there’s a scene where a horrible green shading takes over the right hand side of the frame for a couple of minutes. There’s some aliasing visible, it’s excessively grainy throughout and there is some obvious combing visible. For a mercy, the colours are generally impressive and the level of detail is adequate. There are occasional moments, usually close-up daytime exterior scenes, when you could mistake this for a decent transfer but then the problems set in again.
So why do I say that this isn’t completely disastrous? Simply because the US disc is even worse and there isn’t a version available elsewhere with English subtitles. We also have a decent mono soundtrack which doesn’t have the audibility problems from the Region 1 edition and presents the gorgeous music score reasonably well. It’s also a mark of how bloody great the film is that you could watch it on a fuzzy black and white television (as I did in the early 1980s) and it would still transcend every problem you throw at it. But I sincerely hope that Infinity Arthouse realises the marvellous material which they are throwing away with poor transfers.
The only extra is a substantial 55 minute “Italian Portraits” documentary about Rosi. This is centred around a lengthy interview with Rosi and interspersed with film clips and comments from other people including Martin Scorsese and John Turturro. It’s very interesting and informative about Rosi’s deprived childhood and his entry into the business. The documentary is in Italian with English subtitles. Sadly there are no chapter stops included but it’s compelling enough to be worth watching through a couple of times.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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