The difference between the South of Italy and the North is huge. The South is very much deprived in comparison, with education, healthcare and wages all lagging behind the North since the days of the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, in 1861. To add to that, this deprivation allows organised crime to take root as an alternative system of support, thus opening the doors to corruption and a further holding-back of improved living standards. Granted, an analogous North/South divide is apparent in most countries. Back home in Serbia, it is Belgrade and the northern province of Vojvodina where most of the wealth lies – the deeper south you go and the closer to Kosovo, the worse it gets. Here in Britain, it is London and the Southeast that hold all the money, the North, Scotland and Wales are thus all united in their hatred of London.
The North/South divide in Italy has yielded many discussions, both on a political level in an attempt to solve “The Southern Question”, but also on a cultural level. The Neorealists of the 1940s and ’50s in particular were aware of the differences in Southern and Northern Italy. Though it was a wide-ranging movement it was united in its desire to represent the poor and marginalised of Italian society, and though the films themselves weren’t always directly critical on a political level, their very focus often implied a deeper critique of society.
This is turn led many Neorealists to create films about the South and “The Southern Question”. Roberto Rossellini’s superb Paisan starts off in the South, and works its way up the peninsula, whilst tackling the issues of communication and understanding between different peoples. Though he mostly deals with the difference between Italian and American culture, the distinctions between the many regions of Italy is also implicit within the film. On a similar note, Luchino Visconti’s The Earth Trembles was scripted in the Sicilian language instead of standardised Italian. Its depiction of a fishing village in Sicily and the socio-economic forces that combine to shackle its denizens away from a brighter future represents Italian Neorealism at its most outwardly Marxist and directly critical and political. Antonio Gramsci would have been proud.
Unsurprisingly, Neapolitan director Francesco Rosi worked as an assistant director on The Earth Trembles. Rosi was a man who very much carried on the Neorealist tradition by constantly critiquing Italian society throughout his films and he himself tackled the North/South divide in Italy many a time. A memoir like Christ Stopped at Eboli offers him much chance to do. Published originally in 1945 by Carlo Levi, a Neorealist intellectual from Turin, it is an account of Levi’s forced exile by the Fascist government in the region of Basilicata, an extremely poor area of Southern Italy.
We open with Carlo Levi, played here by the mercurial Gian Maria Volonté, looking upon a series of paintings in his house. They are his paintings of the peasants whom he got to know in his time in exile, and he begins drawing his memory back to those times. The first 15 or so minutes of the film begin slowly with a journey into the Gagliano, the village in which Levi stayed – the film makes a point of drawing us into the landscape and emphasising just how far apart this place is from Turin. Here he is, a Northern intellectual, a trained doctor with an interest in painting and writing, pushed out to the middle of nowhere as punishment for his anti-Fascist ideals, unable to express himself.
Slowly we are introduced to life in the village. The Fascist bureaucratic mayor is a constant figure. He is completely incompetent, and his decrees and laws bear little relevance to the peasants he purportedly controls. The laws passed down from Rome are often designed with the North in mind, and are completely ignorant of the South’s needs; for example, a tax on goats is levied to improve agricultural production, but for these Southern peasants goats are one of the few sources of income. The mayor himself is completely isolated from contact with the villagers, rarely being seen outside his house.
Continually Rosi shows us how the political and economic life of the village is completely divorced from the political and economic life of Rome and the far-away northern cities. At a dinner with other villagers, a point is made that if these people have a capital to look to, it is not Rome or even Naples, but New York – a city many southern Italians made their home in the early 20th century. Some of the villagers have spent time in New York looking for work, but the memory of the village has often drawn them back; they are torn between economic security and emotional security.
Visually, Christ Stopped at Eboli is simple but extremely effective. Despite filming in the old ‘Academy’ ratio of 4:3, it is a film that feels as if it should be widescreen, so rooted are the characters in the absolutely stunning landscape. Yet to do otherwise would have damaged the intimacy of the film; we are allowed to get close not just to Carlo Levi but to the people he encounters. Some of them are rather eccentric – the drunken, rambling priest is a case in point, and Levi builds a friendship with him due to the fact that he himself is one of the few educated individuals locally – but these eccentrics are also often shown isolated and alone in the frame. Though they live here, they are often not part of the crucial fabric of village life. The treatment of the priest is ambivalent; he is resolutely anti-Fascist and succeeds in infuriating the mayor, but as soon as he has done that he simply uses the Church as a means of exploiting money from the villagers, who themselves are highly superstitious but not particularly religious in their following of Catholic traditions.
At two-and-a-half hours, Christ Stopped at Eboli is a rather long film but it still suffers from a certain disjointedness at times, with certain characters appearing and disappearing at will and occasional scenes ending rather abruptly. It feels as if it is a film cut down from something, and IMDB confirms my suspicions: a TV version of the film runs at 3 hours and 44 minutes. Any film will lose something in such a large cut, though it does not stop Christ Stopped at Eboli from being any less interesting.
This is a brilliant piece of work that digs under the skin of the North/South divide and portrays Southern village life in all its poetry and hardship. Occasionally, one can perhaps level at the film the criticism that it romanticises such a life, but I don’t believe it does this to an unhealthy extent. Arguably it is impossible to portray something without objectifying or exploiting it even on the smallest level, such is the nature of the camera. Christ Stopped at Eboli remains a superb, engaging drama with an excellent central performance from Gian Maria Volonté and is recommended for anyone with an interest in Italian culture.