Magazine article Artforum International

Operatic Tenor: James Quandt on Straub and Huillet's Sicilia!

Magazine article Artforum International

Operatic Tenor: James Quandt on Straub and Huillet's Sicilia!

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 Daniele 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 Melendez-like bodegon.) 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. …

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