In Elio Vittorini’s 1939 novel “Conversation in Sicily,” the directing team of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub has found a rich vein of material to mine and transform into a handful of black and white scenes of considerable expressive power. Although this brief film is targeted primarily for the select high-art audiences who have given these difficult directors a cult reputation, it contains some very accessible moments which could open a door for new viewers. Pic’s 1.33 TV format and institutional producers suggest pubcasters as a natural outlet, though its rigorously static fixed-frame lensing, deliberately literary dialogue and cut-to-the-bones stylization will not make it a ratings champ.
Apparently set in the 1930s, story revolves around the immigrant Silvestro (Gianni Buscarino), who returns home to Sicily after a 15 years in America. A man selling oranges (Carmelo Maddio) fills him in on the island’s continuing poverty, where bread, olive oil and oranges are luxuries. The theatrical dialogue is declaimed flatly, as in the next scene aboard a train headed south to Catania. Silvestro converses with a Sicilian who has settled in northern Bologna, and who pretends not to be a policeman, the typical occupation for islanders who immigrate north. An armchair philosopher, he announces he’s ready for “higher duties,” higher values that would lift the sad, lugubrious Sicilian people out of the rut they’re stuck in.
Feeling the need for a change of pace, Huillet and Straub insert a perfectly silent passage of sea vistas out the train window, followed by a slow back-and-forth pan from a city to a cemetery. Viewers who are still left after these inexpressive exercises (evidently a summary of Silvestro’s travels and a reminder of the directors’ documentary vocation) are treated to Vittorini’s celebrated scene recording the meeting between Silvestro and his mother (Angela Nugara).
She is living in a new house after leaving his father, guilty of writing gallant love poems to women he fancied. Her son recalls his poverty-stricken childhood, then interrogates her roughly about his father and her life, while Nugara defends herself and even an old love affair in a strikingly honest, tough perf. She left her husband over a question of respect, she affirms.
Pic closes on Silvestro’s encounter with a village knife-sharpener (Vittorio Vigneri) who discourses in sharp, poetic dialogue on the world’s beauties and “offenses.” A strong sense of Sicilian dignity emerges, along with their outrage over injustice and stiff-backed determination to carry on. The film takes pains to bring out the underlying political force of the book, which was banned by the Fascists.
Though this screen adaptation can be seen as following the documentary approach for which Straub and Huillet are noted, the actors are professionals who performed the text as a stage play in Italy last year.