conversations in Sicily

Banksy, gas pump, 2011


Considerations on the film by Jean-Marie Straub (1933-2022) and Danièle Huillet (1936-2006), based on the book by Elio Vittorini

In May 1941, Elio Vittorini launched, through Bompiani, Conversation in Sicily (conversations in Sicily), a novel that had had a previous edition in March of that same year, under the title of name and tear and had already been published in five chapters in a literary magazine, between April 1938 and April 1939.

Conversation in Sicily narrates the return of Silvestro, a Sicilian man who lives in an undetermined city in northern Italy, to his native island, with the pretext of visiting his mother, but, in fact, in search of his own childhood and, on a metaphorical level, his own identity. .

In 1998, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Swiss filmmakers who are characterized by an experimental and openly anti-commercial cinema, presented Sicily! (Sicilian people), drawing inspiration from the work of Vittorini, from which they manage to capture, in a very thought-provoking way, a fundamental issue – that of memory – without, however, fully reproducing the novel.

In the two final frames of the film, the words “constellations / dialogues of the novel / Conversation in Sicily/ by Elio Vittorini / 1937-1938” and a photo of the author, as if to confirm that the two directors place themselves under the aegis of the Sicilian writer, although they will only use a few chapters from his work, favoring the dialogued passages. It is interesting to note the choice of the term “constellation” that points to the aspect, at the same time, fragmentary and unitary of the film, because, in a constellation, we can distinguish each part that integrates it, without losing sight of its totality. In fact, Sicily! it is composed of approximately a dozen sequences, each one finished in itself and “independent” of the other, that is, the relationship between them occurs by juxtaposition and not by subordination.

By transforming Conversation in Sicily in Constellations, Huillet and Straub manage to convey Vittorini's intentions to the screen, thanks to the practically faithful exploration of the novel's lines, which, combined with the anti-naturalism in the declamation of the dialogues, the Brechtian distancing of the actors in relation to the characters and the dry and stripped of the narrative, allow appreciating the literary quality of the original work.

The novel consists of five parts (forty-eight chapters), followed by an Epilogue (49o chapter) and a Note, while the film can be divided into three macro sequences. The first part of Conversation in Sicily covers chapters one to eight, in which Silvestro, taken by abstract fury and motivated by a letter from his father who had abandoned his wife, decides to return to Sicily to visit his mother. It is when the encounter with the little Sicilian takes place, who curses the oranges that do not succeed in pulling him out of his misery; with representatives of repression, Com Bigode/Sem Bigode; and with the Grand Lombard, a character who, throughout the novel, will become archetypal, since all the men evoked on the trip to Sicily will contribute to its composition.

This initial part roughly corresponds to the first macrosequence of Sicily!, which, however, opens directly with the conversation between Silvestro and the little Sicilian (that is, almost in correspondence with the fourth chapter of the novel), when the protagonist declares himself an American fifteen years ago, in an ambiguous response, which can either correspond to to the desire not to frustrate the expectation of his interlocutor, as he may be expressing the distance from that reality that was once his and within which he will gradually insert himself again throughout his journey.

Before the beginning of the second macro-sequence, there is a kind of pause in the film, which corresponds to the first two chapters of the second part of the novel. We have a sequence along the sea, in which, after the opening moments, the sound disappears and the image, now in slow motion, at times accelerated – following the rhythm of the train Silvestro is on – ends up accelerating to the extreme (recalling the landscape seen from that same running train), until any realistic trace disappears and the image becomes increasingly abstract, like if it were a work of action painting. This sequence echoes Silvestro's observation in the tenth chapter of the novel, when he has the sensation of traveling in the fourth dimension.

In the subsequent sequence, we have two panoramic views of one hundred and eighty degrees, almost identical – from left to right and from right to left –, which can be interpreted, in their difference in luminosity, as the passage from one day to the next and that may represent Silvestro's view of the landscape within which the house where his mother lives is inserted and whose vision will trigger the recovery of childhood memory. Afterwards, the meeting with Dona Concezione (the mother) begins the film's second macro-sequence, which corresponds to the second part of the novel, comprising chapters nine to twenty (except seventeen, where Vittorini deepens the image of Vittorini's maternal grandfather. Silvestro).

It is the core of Sicily!, in which we witness the clash between the character-narrator and the powerful maternal figure, in frank and sometimes even harsh dialogues, in which the reminiscences of the two confront and complement each other, and during which mother and son discover that perhaps don't get to know each other so deeply, since one can still represent a surprise for the other, especially the mother for Silvestro, when he discovers in Dona Concezione a sexuality lived outside of marriage that he was unaware of.

These dialogues are important moments in the narrative, as it is thanks to them that the reencounter with the memory occurs and this, in the film, is much more marked than in the novel, due to the directors' option to privilege them to the detriment of the action.

The conversations between mother and son revolve around Silvestro's eating habits in childhood, in which both the novel and the film explore the sense of smell (the smell of herring and melon) as a trigger for the main character's memories. From this, the habits of the house, the domestic routine, family relationships are reconstituted. In addition, the figures of the grandfather and father are evoked, who, in Dona Concezione's memories, are often mixed up and with whom Silvestro ends up identifying himself when characterizing them as Grand Lombards: that is, great men dissatisfied with day to day life.

At the end of the second macrosequence, we again have that kind of pause, which now does not correspond to any chapter, but is the reiteration of the panorama repeated at the beginning of that same macrosequence, thus framing the central nucleus of Sicilia!.

The third part of the novel, which goes from chapter twenty-one to thirty-one, in which the succession of visits that mother and son make to various residents of the village, to whom Dona Concezione gives injections, is completely omitted from the film. Of the fourth part, which includes chapters from thirty-two to forty, Huillet and Straub only used chapters thirty-three and thirty-four. In these, the encounter between Silvestro and Calogero, the sharpener, is narrated, who calls for knives, scissors and other weapons to combat injustice, with the other characters with whom Vittorini configured the theme of the “offended world” being abolished: Ezechiele, who writes about the pains of the world, and Porfirio, the cloth seller, who wants running water to wash away these pains and console the offended human race.

In this compression that the film operates, however, the theme of the offended man is not lost, since he will be represented by the sum of the little Sicilian, Silvestro and Calogero, thus respecting one of the fulcrums of the novel.

the fifth part of Conversation in Sicily and the Epilogue, as well as the Note, do not appear in the film, that is, the chapters related to Silvestro's encounter with the ghosts of the past are suppressed (his brother, killed in the war; the Shakespearean heroes that his father represented) and the farewell of the mother, whom he finds washing the feet of an old man (the father, the grandfather, the lover/wanderer?). The Epilogue, however, by clarifying that the conversations in Sicily lasted three days and three nights, seems to shed light on the three narrative blocks into which the two directors divided their film.

In view of the cuts made by Huillet and Straub, therefore, we clearly understand the reason for choosing the term constellation to characterize their work. In fact, constellation refers to the fragmentary construction of memory, through the free joining of isolated blocks of memory. And if memory is fragmentary, it is dialogue, it is conversation that makes it possible to recover, sew together and reinterpret the past.

By leaving routine life and undertaking a journey in search of his childhood, Silvestro is trying to recover his own identity, as the remembered past – and, more than that, relived – becomes a source of the present and no longer a remote event. And Silvestro's identity is constructed by identifying the boy he was in childhood with the little Sicilian, with the Grand Lombard, with his father, grandfather, the ghosts of the past and the offended human race, that is, he restructures when talking with or about these characters.

In the option for a dialogic form, the film, more than the novel, privileges memory, because, by practically eliminating the action, it allows memories to become present, to impose themselves, breaking the limits of time and space and freeing the human being. from the oppression of reality, allowing it to transcend this reality through creation and imagination.

*Mariarosaria Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Modern Letters at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Italian cinematographic neo-realism: a reading (Edusp).

Originally published in the newspaper The State of S. Paul, on May 4, 2003.

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