The most famous work by Siracusa-born Elio Vittorini, Conversations in Sicily (1941) tells the story of Silvestro Ferrauto, a Sicilian living in Milan who makes the trip back to his birthplace in an attempt to work through an existential crisis. Told in the first person, the 186-page novel is divided into 49 short chapters which consist primarily of dialogues between Silvestro and his various compatriots.
Over the course of their forty-year career, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet became known for their highly inventive adaptation strategies and Sicilia!, their 1999 cinematic reworking of Conversations in Sicily is certainly no exception. It sees the directors take on the work of Vittorini twenty years after From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979), their adaptation of two works by his close friend – fellow writer, translator and American literature enthusiast Cesare Pavese.1
The way Straub-Huillet tackle Vittorini is similar to their approach to Pavese. Unconcerned with questions of fidelity, they rigorously remodel their source texts. In From the Clouds to the Resistance, they made their selection from two Pavese works – 1947’s Dialogues with Leucò and 1950’s The Moon and the Bonfires – while with Sicilia! they remove the source text’s first-person narration while keeping and/or condensing the key exchanges. In the film, as in the novel, the centrepiece is Silvestro’s revelatory conversation(s) with his mother.
Sicilia! runs to barely 64-minutes and is shot in black and white and academy ratio by cinematographer William Lubtchansky. The high contrast monochrome is hugely effective in rendering both the sun-bleached, arid textures of the exteriors and the deep, tar-like shadows of the interiors (the mother’s house in particular).2 Viewers familiar with the well-established Straub-Huillet aesthetic will know what to expect from Sicilia! The stark visual style is matched by a meticulously restrained sound design which allows characters’ voices – their distinctive Sicilian accents – to resound. In Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, Pedro Costa’s 2001 Cinéma, de notre temps documentary shot during the editing of Sicilia!, Straub makes his feelings clear on the Hollywood predilection for using extra-diegetic music to paper over sequences and fill gaps (“There are lots of masterpieces in the history of cinema which we admire very much but which obviously hold together because of the [musical] soup”). Straub also takes the opportunity to address some of the criticism levelled against his and Huillet’s work, including their characters’ apparent lack of psychology and the non-naturalistic quality of their actors’ performances (“[People say that] there is no psychology in our films. But that’s not true. There is no psychology in terms of the performance of the actor because there is a dramatic abstraction that goes deeper than so-called verisimilitude. […] In between the shots and in the way shots are linked to each other, it is extremely subtle psychology”).
There’s no doubt that in Sicilia! there’s a certain mannered quality to the performances, with the apparently flat delivery of dialogue heightened even more by the actors’ similarly understated physicality. However, in terms of both psychology and backstory, it’s in the content and selection of the dialogue rather than in its delivery that important facets about character are revealed. The clearest example of this occurs in the mother-son conversation that takes up more than half of the film’s running time. It’s a scene that can’t help but recall another of cinema’s compelling mother-son confrontations – that between director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his real-life mother Lilo Pempeit in Fassbinder’s episode of omnibus film Germany in Autumn (1978). Both the Straub-Huillet and Fassbinder sequences have sons questioning their mothers about their pasts, forcing both women to defend themselves. In Germany in Autumn, the discussion is mostly about Pempeit’s attitude to politics and the role of democracy, whereas the mother in Straub-Huillet (Angela Nugara) opens up about her personal life, including her relationship with her philandering husband and her own father. The power of the Straub-Huillet mother-son conversation lies partly in the fact that while the images are austere, the dialogue has an extraordinarily sensuous quality that transcends the actors’ non-naturalistic delivery. It’s an approach that echoes one of Robert Bresson’s famous dictums in Notes on Cinematography: “Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay”.’3
As the mother talks about the food the family had when her children were young, there are mentions of bread, oil, sausages, peppers, olives, dried tomatoes, rosemary, lentils, wild chicory and much more – evoking all manner of sights, smells, sounds and textures. She also talks about the smell of honeycomb when she was a young woman and in another exchange – taken almost verbatim from the novel – she recalls forcing her husband to help her give birth (‘He helped me, he pulled the baby out safe and healthy as if he was someone else, but of course I pushed more than he pulled, he had his face covered in blood and sweat’).4 The vivid nature of these descriptions, together with the other sensuous references throughout the film confirm Straub-Huillet’s commitment not only to the source text, but also to the expressive possibilities of sound. Indeed, this was noted as early as 1971 by Richard Roud in one of the first English-language monographs on Straub, and could still be applied to his and Huillet’s work three decades later:
Even though the sound is captured live, Straub already altered it by the direction of his actors, obliging them to speak in a deliberately inexpressive manner […] For him the soundtrack of a film is at least as important as the visuals, if not more so.[5. Richard Roud, Jean-Marie Straub (London: Secker & Warburg, 1971), p.10.]
Sicilia! (1999 Italy/France/Germany 66 minutes)
Prod: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub Dir: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub Scr: Elio Vittorini Phot: William Lubtchansky Ed: Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub
Cast: Gianni Buscarino, Vittorio Vigneri, Angela Nugara
- Pavese and Vittorini were born within a couple of months of each other in 1908 and both had ties to Turin-based publishers Einaudi (together with other prominent writers such as Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginzburg). ↩
- A regular collaborator of Straub-Hulliet as well as Jacques Rivette and Jean-Luc Godard, Sicilia! was one of a series of late Lubtchansky masterclasses in monochrome photography. Also of considerable note was his work on Philippe Garrell’s Regular Lovers (2005) and Frontier of the Dawn (2008). ↩
- Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography (Translated by Jonathan Griffin)(New York: Urizen Books), p.28. ↩
- Elio Vittorini, Conversazione in Sicilia (Milano: Bompiani, 1941), p.58 (My translation). ↩