PRINT May 2016


Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Sicilia!, 1999, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 66 minutes. Mother (Angela Nugara).

JEAN-MARIE STRAUB has frequently quoted D. W. Griffith’s plaint “What the modern movie lacks is beauty—the beauty of moving wind in the trees.” Ironically, it was an arboreal breeze that gave Danièle Huillet, Straub’s wife and the coauthor of their films, such grief while she was editing the final sequences of their 1999 masterpiece, Sicilia! As revealed in Pedro Costa’s documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), the fastidious Huillet obsesses at the editing bench over a barely there palm frond that, stirred by Sicilian wind, intrudes into a corner of the composition. Exclaiming in amazement when she notices a butterfly that has made its way into an image, or fixating on how long to hold a shot to uncover the smile cached in an actor’s reticent expression, the hawkeyed Huillet surprisingly ignores the secondary events unfolding in the film’s opening sequences, which, once noticed, become less a distraction than an anachronistic rupture.

His back implacably turned toward us throughout the first of the film’s four sections, its protagonist (nonactor Gianni Buscarino)—whose face we do not see for several minutes and whose name, Silvestro, we learn only later—suddenly cries, “There is no cheese like ours!” This odd opening line introduces Sicilia!’s inventory of local foods, from the “accursed oranges” that a vendor peddles at the beginning to the herring and winter melon that Silvestro’s mother proffers when he returns home after fifteen years away. (Ever painterly in disposition, Straub-Huillet turn a close-up of the grilling fish, suspended cook pot, and white plate into a Meléndez-like bodegón.) As Silvestro converses with the fruit seller about life in America, where he resides—the scene is taken verbatim from the novel on which Sicilia! is based, Elio Vittorini’s anti-Fascist Conversations in Sicily (1941), though the film later departs from its source in significant ways—one’s attention is divided among the images of the hawker’s body, truncated in the manner of Bresson; the men’s strangely cadenced talk, delivered in the folk-stentorian mode of the directors’ late Italian films (“Shouting, always shouting!” one critic complained); and a seawall alcove in frame right, where a boy prepares his fishing line. In two subsequent shots of Silvestro’s back, the boy is first joined by some comrades and then vacates the frame altogether; a large boat abruptly appears docked at the quay, though only seventeen seconds of real time elapse between shots and no ship has been seen approaching (moreover, it will have disappeared by the third shot); and detritus has accumulated in the water, also indicating a passage of time far longer than that which transpired during the men’s conversation. The visually simultaneous events, contrary in their implied duration, confound our sense of temporality and, perhaps inadvertently, deny the “absolute continuity” that Straub deplored as a falsity of bourgeois cinema.

Straub-Huillet’s aesthetic abounds in such anomalies. One finds comfort, albeit austere, in encountering patented elements of the filmmakers’ approach in Sicilia!: a parody of the traditional establishing shot, in which the camera endlessly lingers on a railroad-station sign designating Catania; the disappearance of all diegetic sound for a long period as we gaze at the passing scenery from a train window (a sequence Huillet compares to Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu [1953] in the Costa doc); jarringly mismatched cuts, such as the one that segues from the mother (a formidable Angela Nugara) standing three-quarters in frame to an abridged close-up of Silvestro’s head and shoulders, tamped into the lower half of the image; or the most familiar trope from their formal arsenal, the so-called plan Straubien, in which an extended panoramic shot slowly traverses a countryside. For good measure, the filmmakers here immediately repeat their languid semicircular pan across a Sicilian hillside, the second time in slightly brighter light, the camera suddenly swinging in reverse to fix on a distant village, and do it yet again about ten minutes before the movie’s end.

Most critics have placed the hour-long Sicilia! among Straub-Huillet’s peasants-declaiming-in-a-landscape works, but in many ways it belongs with their musical films, such as Von heute auf morgen (From Today Until Tomorrow, 1997), their rendition of the eponymous Schönberg opera, made just prior to Sicilia! Like Schönberg’s comic one-act, the film is a Kammerspiel shot by legendary cinematographer William Lubtchansky in high-contrast black-and-white and centered on marital discord (Silvestro is visiting his mother to discover why she broke up with his father). Aside from a folk song and the Beethoven string quartet that introduces and ends Sicilia!, the film avoids nondiegetic music, but it is itself structured as a chamber work in four movements, and the idiosyncratic delivery of the baroque dialogue often hits the ear as discordant ariettas and semi-recitatives. Indeed, the rapid volleys of conversation on the train in the second “movement” suggest nothing so much as bug-eyed buffa roulades; and Silvestro’s frequent lists of foods and place names, and his exhilarating exchange in the finale with a knife sharpener—a vocation almost as obsolete as the harquebuses he mentions and the 1.37 aspect ratio that the directors employ—enumerating the joys and insults of life, resemble verismo variations on Leporello’s catalogue aria from Don Giovanni.

Pierre Boulez once said, “I admire people who have obstinately gone their way and explored their personalities to the very end,” citing as an example Cézanne, coincidentally also the subject of two Straub-Huillet films (Cézanne: Dialogue avec Joachim Gasquet [1990] and Une visite au Louvre [2004]). The dauntless duo might have equally qualified for the composer’s esteem, as they stayed their uncompromising course for half a century, at times questioning the judgment even of those who admire their films. Disparaging audiences for complacency, they claimed that it was only “the vices of the bourgeoisie”—a desire for a protagonist who takes an “initiatory journey” and reunites with his mother—that accounted for the comparative popularity of Sicilia! In which case, this critic remains impenitent for indulging said depravity.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.