• 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.

    Matt Page


    Saturday, October 19, 2019

    Operai, contadini (Workers,Peasants)

    Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, 2000) find Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet returning to the work of Italian marxist Elio Vittorini following 1998's Sicilia! their first adaptation of his work. The title alone expresses one of the key themes of twentieth century Italian life, the division between the industrial north and the rural south. Particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s many of the peasant farmers migrated northwards to find work in the upper regions of Italy as the economy in and around Milan boomed. Countries are commonly divided between north and south, or (east and west) or between the lower and middle classes, but divisions between classes, not just in terms of attitudes, but also lifestyle, in this manner are particular to Italy.

    Vittorini's novel ("Le donne di Messina") tells the story of a community of workers and peasants in post WWII Italy who come together from all over the nation to form a new community. Rather than locating their film amongst houses and streets, however, Huillet and Straub situate it entirely in the forest. As Tag Gallagher summarises, Straub/Huillet turn the material "into a celebration of a New Eden", most notably a final shot where the action finally pans away from the tight collection of medium and mid-shots to a wide-shot capturing a glint of the horizon in the far distance (2005).

    To achieve this however Huillet and Straub have to end their film in the middle of Vittorini's novel where the attempt to build an idealised community is ultimately unsuccessful. Of course, I say "Vittorini's novel" as if a clearly established single work exists, but as those who have read my review of their other films will be aware, things are rarely so straightforward. Indeed, "Le donne di Messina" exists in several versions rewritten over the fifteen year period between 1948 and 1963.

    Another unusual aspect of Vittorini's work is the variety of perspectives it is told from. Guido Bonsaver observes how "the persona of the traditional narrator is replaced by a polysemy of voices which 'decentres' the narrative act" (2017: 166). Again this is familiar territory for Huillet and Straub (History Lessons springs to mind). Whilst these include a traditional narrator, a "registro" and a journalist, there are also a range of voices from the workers/peasants themselves. In typical fashion Straub/Huillet adopt and formalise this approach, using twelve characters (again raising religious connotations) who deliver their lines with varying degrees of deadpan, and limited movement or use of gestures. The characters give different perspectives on the same material, most notably in a long section where various performers share their experience of the process of making ricotta cheese. In so doing they reverse one of cinema's oldest adages, "show, don't tell".

    For the first time, however, Huillet and Straub's characters hold scripts - though the degree to which they are actually read from varies. Whilst this marks a development for the pair it was interesting to read in Christopher Small's discussion of this film that this is, in fact, an established style in parts of Tuscany. The maggio, is "a dramatic form in which texts are read in a declamatory, highly stylized, and non-psychological style" (Small). Performances are "produced, written, staged, and performed by peasants and for peasants" (Small). It's hard to think of a traditional theatrical style more idealistically wedded to that of Straub/Huillet, and, scripts aside, it is particularly noticeable in the works of their that are either set in Italy, or performed in the language.

    What is also quite striking about the film is the unusual style of the shots. As with other films of theirs, the camera-work relies heavily on very long takes, interspersed with the occasional attention-attracting pan. Whilst the film uses a mix of one, two and indeed three-shots, many of the one shots stand out because of the way they frame their subjects. Whilst the camera's distance suggests a mid-shot, from waist up, and the subject faces it in straightforward fashion, they are not framed in typical fashion: only their shoulders and heads appear within the shot, leaving a larger than usual space above their heads.

    The manner in which the film concludes with so much of the novel still remaining is perhaps because Straub and Huillet already planned to produce a third adaptation of Vittorini's works in Il Ritorno del figlio prodigo/Umiliati (The Return of the Prodigal Son/Humiliated) which continues some of the themes developed here. Indeed discussion of the Prodigal Son has already occurred partway through this film. I'm yet to see Il Ritorno so perhaps I'll save my discussion of that theme until then.

    - Bonsaver, Guido (2017), Elio Vittorini: The Writer and the Written, London and New York: Routledge.
    - Gallagher, Tag (2005), "Lacrimae Rerum Materialized", Senses of Cinema, (37) October. Available online - http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/straubs/.
     - Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: “Workers, Peasants", mubi.com Notebook Column, September 24, Available online - https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-workers-peasants.



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