Francesco Rosi's somberly beautiful and stirring "Eboli," opening today at the Outer Circle, keeps faith with its eloquent source -- Carlo Levi's memoir of a year spent in exile among the peasantry of southern Italy.

Originally published in 1947, "Christ Stopped at Eboli" recalled a period during 1935 and 1936 when Levi, an outspoken opponent of the Fascist regime, was banished from his home in Turin and kept under police house arrest for the duration of the Abyssinian War in a pair of villages in the province of Lucania. Retracing Levi's steps more than 40 years later, Rosi combines literary quotation, evocative location photography and effective dramatization into an impressive distillation of a great book.

"Eboli's" cropped title is evidently the importer's idea. Given the book's reputation, it seems curiously maladroit. Levi clarified the original title in his opening chapter, and the key passages are recited in voice-over narration at the beginning of the movie. Eboli was the last train stop on Levi's journey into the impoverished South. He discovered that the peasants had a saying: "We're not Christians, Christ stopped short of here at Eboli."

Levi went on to explain "'Christian' in their way of speaking means 'human being' and this proverbial phrase that I have so often heard them repeat may be no more than a hopeless feeling of inferiority. We're not Christians, we're not human beings; we're not thought of as men but simply as beasts. . . . But the phrase has a much deeper meaning. . . . Christ did stop at Eboli, where the road and the railway leave the coast of Salerno 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 to effect, nor reason, nor history. . . . 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."

An acutely perceptive visitor, Levi made a heroic effort to understand. His observations of rural poverty resulted in a transcendent memoir, expanding from recollection and reportage into cultural anthropology, social history and criticism, poetic celebration and ultimately metaphysical speculation.

Although officially a political prisoner, Levi found himself in a uniquely privileged position. As a gentleman from the city known to be a writer and painter, he commanded considerable respect; even more important from the point of view of the peasants, Levi had a medical degree.

He had never practiced medicine and was reluctant to offend the local fraternity, but was drawn into doctoring by necessity and popular demand. The peasants trusted him far more than the aging, discredited village doctor, and members of the gentry had their own selfish or political reasons for preferring Levi's medical care. He also inspired confidence as a solitary, diffident personality -- and as a good listener -- and thus enjoyed access to many of the community's deepest secrets. He, in turn, respected the emotional trust placed in him.

Rosi confines the movie's chronicle to a single village called Gagliano and utilizes an impressionistic, cumulative story-telling method. Gian Maria Volonte as Levi is introduced arriving at the Eboli station with two guards. vHe finds and adopts the abandoned dog Barone, who becomes his pet. A bus and taxi carry him deeper into the bleak, eroded countryside and finally to the craggy hilltop of Gagliano.

Rosi and cinematographer Tasqualino de Sanpis allow each new setting and character to emerge with unemphatic individuality and mystery. We seem to share in Levi's discovery of the location and its inhabitants. The impressions, vivid and fascinating in isolation, begin to add up and reinforce one another, resulting in a detailed social and human mural.

The naturally forceful Volonte portrays Levi with more restraint than I would have imagined possible.He can't resist a few knowing smirks when the voice of Mussolini is overheard occasionally in radio broadcasts, but these reflexes seem to derive from Volonte's own prominent left-wing sympathies rather than the thought processes of an intellectual like Levi. Volonte also seems rather old for the role, but it's easier to overlook this incongruity than his occasional flashing of liberal credentials.

There are several remarkable embodiments of characters from the book, notably Irene Papas as Levi's tempestuous housekeeper; Francois Simon as a once-dedicated and artistic priest who has fallen into senile disgrace; and Giuseppe Persia as a frustrated tax collector who shows Levi how he "takes out the anger" by playing a clarinet.

One role has been effectively expanded from the book: the Fascist mayor of Gagliano, played with admirable paternalistic sincerity by Paolo Donacelli. After censoring one of Levi's letters, the mayor feels impelled to explain his policy and warns the prisoner against similar indiscretions. He's given enough time and consideration to express his conformist, authoritarian views coherently. Rosi doesn't find it necessary to score self-righteous points off the mayor, and this restraint reaffirms the compassionate, rational outlook of Levi's book.

Rosi prepared a two-hour theatrical version from a four-hour mini-series commissioned by RAI, the Italian television network, which has become an indispensable backer of serious filmmakers over the past decade or so. The film's structure doesn't allow room for the summarizing passages of analysis in which Levi suggested remedies for the economic stagnation and cultural alienation he encountered in southern Italy. However, the sense of time and place and the characterization are so absorbing that the movie is almost certain to reawaken interest in the book, recently reissued in paperback by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Postwar Italian filmmaking was at its height when "Christ Stopped at Eboli" first appeared. Rosi has added an echoing grace note to the neo-realist tradition in the act of filming a literary classic.