In 1935, a distinguished artist and intellectual turned escorted political prisoner from Turin named Carlo Levi (Gian Maria Volonté) arrives at the railroad terminal station at Eboli for further transportation – first by a series of public buses, then by a waiting automobile dispatched by the regional mayor Don Luigi (Paolo Bonacelli) – into the remote district of Lucania (now Basilicata) in southern Italy where he is turned over to local officials to serve out his sentence of monitored confinement in the desolate town. After receiving a brief and informal (and highly irregular) orientation on the local customs and expected behavior – along with a healthy dose of village gossip – from Don Luigi (who seems more eager to make a good impression on the prominent detained “guest” than to enforce state regulation), Don Carlo is released into the population where his privileged life, medical degree, and progressive thinking seem at odds with the townspeople’s stubborn observation of ancient superstitions and outmoded, feudal customs. Resigned to an uneventful and leisurely existence, Don Carlo spends his empty days wandering aimlessly through the provincial town and spending quiet evenings at the boarding house. However, the seemingly predictable rhythm of his idyllic (if not idle) routine inevitably begins to be disrupted when a group of desperate mothers visit him one evening to seek out medical assistance for their ailing children, and soon, word of the non-practicing physician’s competency (and above all, willingness to help the destitute villagers) spreads through the insular village. Further motivated out of his inertia by his devoted sister Luisa (Lea Massari), a conscientious physician who witnesses first-hand the inadequacy of health care in the region, Don Carlo moves into his own home, and with the help of his diligent housekeeper Giulia (Irene Papas), begins to occupy his time in his studio and makeshift infirmary, in the process, finds renewed purpose in his state-imposed isolation.
A faithful adaptation of artist, physician, and author Carlo Levi’s autobiographical novel chronicling his detention and house arrest (confino) in Lucania as a political prisoner during the Abyssinian War, Christ Stopped at Eboli – a figurative expression for the local population’s enduring mysticism (that continues to exist despite the peasants’ respectful assimilation of the Catholic church) and sentiment of profound spiritual and moral desolation – is a thoughtful and sensitively realized portrait of isolation, resilience, and humanity. Francesco Rosi illustrates the region’s austere topography and natural environment through direct and unintrusive camerawork, capturing the author’s socio-political meditation on Lucania’s isolation and seemingly anachronistic coexistence between ancient and contemporary civilization that (perhaps deliberately) serve to estrange the population from the rest of the nation and, consequently, results in their perennial marginalization (if not, exclusion) by ruling governments. Exploring similar themes of isolation and rural depopulation (specifically, village men who immigrate to America, often abandoning their families) as Theo Angelopoulos within the objective framework of Levi’s experiences and observations during his confinement in the remote region, the film transcends the humanist tale of personal redemption to create a haunting, melancholic, and incisive commentary on cultural oppression and indigenous exile.
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