• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.


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    Matt Page

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    Thursday, July 19, 2018

    Sicilia! (1998)


    Sicilia! (1998) is one of only a few of Straub/Huillet's films from their Italian work to be available in the UK and their last work to gain significant critical attention before Danièle Huillet's death in 2006. Based on Elio Vittorini's "Conversazione in Sicilia" ("Conversations in Sicily" it tells the story of a man returning to his home in Sicily after a fifteen year absence.

    The film opens with a close up of the man's back, his body forming a dark silhouette which immediately contrasts him with his surroundings, the bright sunny port where he has arrived. He engages in conversation with one of the locals about food, employment, family and some of the differences between Sicily and America, where the man has been living. Even for non-Italian speakers, it quickly becomes clear that the characters are not adopting natural speech patterns. This is a common trait in Huillet/Straub films as they seek to prioritise the words of the text they are adapting over the performances of the actors. It also puts a focus on the rhythm and cadence of the spoken words.

    The second scene takes place on a train as the man travels back to his mother's house. Again we see dark silhouettes obscuring a brighter scene, but this time it is two other characters, who are apparently policeman, holding a conversation in the corridor of train, looking out through the open window. The out-of-uniform policeman are complaining about how Sicilians defy law and order to such an extent that not only are they all potentially criminals regardless of their social class, but also that their families are so embarrassed by their chosen careers, that when asked they lie and invent different professions. The use of natural sound (again another critical Straub/Huillet trait) is particularly apparent here as the familiar clackety sound of the train on the rails gives the scene a natural rhythm.

    The action now cuts to inside one of the carriages, where several passengers engage in conversation. As if to prove the policemen's point a man gets up to shut the corridor window because of "the stink". He is referring to the policemen. All the other characters in the carriage know what is meant, except one. Whereas at the start of the scene, it was not immediately obvious which, if any, of the characters in this scene was the unnamed man from the start of the film, now it has become obvious: the man who doesn't understand the comments about "the stink" is the outsider from the start of the film (and whom the film is about) and now we have seen his face. As with many scenes in Huillet/Straub's films much of the scene is shot diagonally.

    The film's relatively unemotional delivery is most striking when the man finally returns home to be reunited with his mother, who he has not seen for so long that he is concerned she won't recognise him. The two talk at length - it's the film's longest scene - and in most other adaptions it would come with emotionally wrought acting and stirring, heartfelt music. Here however the filmmakers leave the emotions to the text, and to the viewer to supply their own feelings and sense of what is unfolding.

    In the final scene the man encounters a salesman who offers to sharpen his knife and proceeds to do so using a device powered by the salesperson's bicycle. As Tag Gallagher has pointed out, the use of the lowish camera angle and the choice of lens initially gives the impression that the two men are far away. However, as the knife is handed over the gap between them is bridged and we realise they are actually far closer.

    As the film was produced many years after Roud's book "Straub" and is not one of the German works examined by Barton Byg, there had not been a great deal of in-depth critical analysis on the film (at least in English) until the two works released in 2016, but it's nevertheless interesting seeing how many of the themes and techniques from their earlier films are carried through to this one.
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    Despite not being, in any real sense, a Bible film, I have included it here as part of my work on Straub/Huillet and their 1973 adaptation of Schönberg's "Moses und Aron".

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