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A short history of ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’: A ‘holy grail’ of classic Italian cinema

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Gian Maria Volonté in Francesco Rosi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli” -- the full cut of which was assumed to be lost.
(Rialto Pictures)

The uncut version of Francesco Rosi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli” was among the first films that Bruce Goldstein went looking for in 1997, after he founded the arthouse “re-distribution” company Rialto Pictures. It might not have been the Holy Grail, exactly, but it was nowhere to be found.

“We had a meeting with the Italian company RAI, which had produced the four-hour TV version,” said Goldstein, who is also the longtime repertory programmer at Manhattan’s Film Forum. “And the guy there said, ‘Well we have “Eboli,” but we don’t have that version.’ They had a two-hour version. And a 2 1/2-hour version. But not the four-part version. I said, ‘That’s crazy. How is that possible?’ ”

It was possible, but Goldstein’s instincts were sound — the film is opening, or rather re-opening, this Friday in Los Angeles, almost 30 years after Goldstein showed the uncut, 3 hour, 40 minute version at New York’s long-gone Thalia theater back in 1980.

“We never did runs, the most we played a film was two days,” he said. “[‘Eboli’] was packed. It was on 35mm. We got lots of publicity. And it was the only time I ever had to set up a screening for Pauline Kael. She probably had us cater it too.”

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“Christ Stopped at Eboli” in its original unabridged form was finally discovered by Goldstein’s Rialto partner, Adrienne Halpern, among the holdings of another company entirely. The complete film bore the abbreviated title “Eboli.”

REVIEW: ‘Christ Stopped at Eboli’ is classic Italian cinema at its finest »

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A scene from Francesco Rosi's 1979 film, "Christ Stopped at Eboli."
(Rialto Pictures)

Based on the best-selling 1945 memoir by Carlo Levi, it’s a story with little to do with Jesus, and nothing to do with Eboli: A writer, painter and activist, Levi was arrested in 1935 for his involvement with anti-fascist movements and exiled to Aliano (Gagliano in the book), a town in a remote region on the “instep” of Italy, called Lucania (now Basilicata). As an internal political prisoner under Mussolini, he’d been banished to a town whose own people would call it too remote for Christ — a.k.a., western religion, or civilization, or even history itself.

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The portrait of the village in which Levi (played in the film by Gian Maria Volonté) spends his year in exile is of a people possessed by primitive values and virtues, but who also live in the grip of grinding poverty, superstition and fear. The heart of the movie is their relationship with the cultivated Levi — who, having also trained as a physician, reluctantly begins to practice in the village.

“The reason I’ve been after it so long is that when I first saw it, I was so moved by it,” said Goldstein. “It’s a very good adaptation of the book — which has never been out of print.”

As part of the digital restoration by Rialto, the subtitles have been redone with the assistance of Michael F. Moore, who had been, coincidentally, a translator for Francesco Rosi.

The director, who died in 2015, was among a generation of Italian auteurs that included Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ettore Scola, Gillo Pontecorvo and the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio. Having absorbed the social-documentary style of Italian neorealism, which flourished immediately after World War II, they created a highly politicized post-neorealist Italian cinema in the 1960s and ’70s. “Salvatore Giuliano” is often cited as Rosi’s masterpiece; his films won prizes at the Venice, Cannes and Berlin film festivals, among others.

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Gian Maria Volonté, left, and Irene Papas in "Christ Stopped at Eboli."
(Rialto Pictures)

“He was one of the great directors, and I don’t say that just because I got to work with him,” said John Turturro, who played another Levi, Primo, in Rosi’s last film, “The Truce” (1997). The actor said he had seen the shorter versions of “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” but was at Film Forum the first afternoon the full version played. “I told everyone I knew to go see it.”

“You don’t see a lot of films like this, and to see it on a big screen… wow,” said Turturro. “Francesco actually came from a bourgeois Neapolitan family, but he made all these movies — ‘Salvatore Giuliano,’ for instance — that really influenced people like Scorsese and even Oliver Stone, because Rosi invented that docu-drama style.”

He said Rosi recalled that he and his cast and crew — including Volonté, with whom he worked five times — had to travel two hours each way during the shooting of the film because there was simply no hotel anywhere closer.

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Things have changed a lot since: The whole region has become something of a tourist destination and Matera — the closest city to “Gagliano” and the one to which the villagers refer in the film — is this year’s European Capital of Culture.

“It’s unbelievable timing for us,” Goldstein said, never minding a search that went on for 20-plus years.

calendar@latimes.com


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