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Myth and Nature in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièlle Huillet: Dialogues with Pavese

by João Dumans

           Among all the authors that Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have worked with throughout their career, none have had as many films dedicated to their work as the Italian writer Cesare Pavese (1908-1950). If we dwell on the period of time that covers more than thirty years - beginning with From the Clouds to the Resistance, in 1978, passing through These Encounters of Theirs, in 2005, to the short films made by Straub after Huillet's death, in 2006 - it is also evident that no other book has served such different purposes in their filmography as Dialogues with Leucó. This doesn't mean that Pavese is the most important artist for the Straubs, or the one with whom they identified the most - a title that would better fit Brecht or Cézanne, for instance. It simply means that Pavese's work managed, over all these years, to embody different faces of the Straub's artistic and political consciousness, and to express certain paradoxes and contradictions fundamental to their cinema.

            Anyone who has become familiar with Pavese's work through Straub's cinema, and who takes the time to read the Italian writer's last novel (The Moon and the Bonfires, on which the second part of From the Cloud to the Resistance is based) will be surprised, for instance, at the movie's infidelity to the novel's intrigue and at the abandonment of the general nostalgic feeling that runs through it, in favor of a political assertiveness that the original book contemplates in a very embryonic and even, one might say, rather tentative manner. The reminiscence and the fascination with mythical moments of childhood, which are at the center of Pavesian fiction, give way, in Straub's movie, to a relevant issue, but, at least on a first reading, relatively secondary in the novel's structure: the resistance of the "partisans" and the survival of fascism in the post-war period.

             The other side of that paradox is equally intriguing. If they are not exactly faithful to the "spirit" of the work, the Straubs manage, by a curious operation of reassembly and association, in an ambitious movement of cuts and reshuffles in the original writings - not to mention the staging itself - to bring to the surface latent meanings, not explicit, not fully realized by the text; meanings that, in the specific case of From the Cloud to the Resistance, appear to give to the Italian writer's political consciousness a vigor and an energy that he himself would perhaps have wished to manifest with such certainty in his writings.

             This because Pavese's life and work - far from the militantism that film critics, in the wake of the political reading of the Straubs, have become accustomed to attribute to them - have always been characterized by a very strong, often unresolved tension between two ways of conceiving art and thinking about reality: on the one side, awareness of social injustices and aversion to fascism drove his literary production in the direction of objectivity, realism, and political engagement. On the other side, the fascination for mythology and mythical experience - with all that it implies in terms of a return to the origins, cyclical celebration of the past, and, above all, an escape from historical reality - has always attracted the writer to the side of symbolic intuition and expression, combined with a nostalgia for the past and for childhood. How to reconcile this devotion to mythical thinking with the concrete demands of historical struggle and thinking (in other words, with a political thought and action) was certainly the most anguishing contradiction in Pavese's entire work - a contradiction that Straub, in his films, will either undo or prolong.

            Pavese's fascination with mythology and mythical thought would earn him, after World War II, the disapproval of both the most conservative sections of Italian society, unhappy with the "perversion" performed by the author on the classical repertory, and of militants and leftist intellectuals. The latter regarded with suspicion his approach to "symbol" and "myth", especially at a time of politicization of the artistic debate and questioning of the mythical-religious mindset associated with fascism. For many critics, Pavese's fascination with myth, which no other book synthesized better than Dialogues with Leucó, was no more than the artistic and intellectual counterpart of his acknowledged "pessimism"-that is, of his personal traumas and his discomfort with the historical and political thought of his own time, largely supported by Marxist theory. Hence, without a doubt, the silence of the critics and the uneasiness that would surround the book's publication in 1947, an episode that would leave a painful mark on the author's spirit.

Myth as History: From the Clouds to the Resistance

             Almost thirty years later, however, the Straubs return to that same book to listen to it with different ears and to make it resonate in a different manner. Along with Fortini/Cani (1976), precisely the first film by an Italian writer directed by the Straubs, From the Cloud to the Resistance would be bound to become one of the filmmakers' most violent manifestos against the abuses of fascism and against the progressive economic, social, and political segregation among men, making an acute critique of the new "democratic" regimes and the advances of capitalism. More than saving Pavese from his "pessimism", the Straubs would seek to recognize and enhance the political dimension - no doubt pre-existing in the texts - of the disputes he depicted, offering a very original reading of an author who, at the end of the 1970s, seemed to be able to contribute very little to the reversal of the climate of political disenchantment that was then announced.

          Through Pavese's Dialogues with Leucó, the Straubs would discover one of the oldest representations of the conflict between men and the powers that sought, over centuries, to limit their freedom of thought and action: when a new generation of gods, the lords of Olympus, imposed their laws on the world of the early days (the Titanic world), the ancient heroes were punished or relegated to oblivion. Meanwhile, mortals, the ordinary men, would be faced with the loss of an ancient right: to mix, indistinctly, with the gods and with the things. This is essentially the theme of the first three dialogues that the Straubs would bring to the screen in From the Clouds to the Resistance: "The Cloud", "The Chimera" and "The Blind Men". The three consist of poetic variations on this essential theme of Greek mythology, and which lies at the heart of the Hesiodic Theogony, a book that recounts, as historian Jean-Pierre Vernant suggested in Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, "in what way, and by what combats, against what enemies, by what means and with what allies Zeus succeeded in establishing over the entire universe a supremacy of royalty that grounds the present order of the world and ensures its permanence." By juxtaposing the universe of Leucó's mythological conflicts with the author's last novel, The Moon and the Bonfires, the Straubs produce a powerful transformation in both, particularly in the sense of highlighting the continuity of the experiences of transgression and resistance narrated in the ancient myths with the struggles of the Italian "partisans" throughout World War II.

           In the same way, the continuity of values and figures that sustain violent and exploitative relationships throughout history, as well as the concealment of these figures according to the conveniences of each period, are at the center of the dramatic "two-times" articulation of From the Cloud to the Resistance. In behalf of a supposed "defense of the values of civilization", according to Italian poet and critic Franco Fortini, and sheltered under the abusive rhetoric of law, justice, and the right to peacefulness, the ancient kings and gods (in the first part of the film) and the modern bosses (in the second) join hands-both of them personifying the discourse of separation and segregation among men. The Straubs thus prolong the experience of previous films such as Moses and Aaron (1974) and Othon (1969), using Pavese's two books as "an object of Marxist reflection.

           The texts of Dialogues with Leucó and The Moon and the Bonfires are thus treated in a "materialist" key, which tends to leave aside their essentialist and subjective dimension (the relationship between myth and childhood, for example, or Pavese's attraction for the "irrational") in favor of their explanatory power regarding the social relations between men. There will be no longer any link between "mythological figures" and "mythical thinking" - that is, thinking oriented towards the overcoming of the present, the return to the origins, the nostalgic fascination with the past - as was the case, to a certain extent, in Pavese. Instead, the mythological figures of Dialogues with Leucó and the characters of The Moon and the Bonfires, now separated from their psychological and symbolic background, become the highest expressions of the permanence of social conflicts, as well as of the continuity and irreducibility of relations of oppression and violence throughout history.

Myth as Knowledge: These Encounters of Theirs

           When the Straubs return to the Italian author almost thirty years later, in These Encounters of Theirs (2006), something of that initial experience is retained and something is transformed. The world, in particular, is no longer the same. The realization of the impact caused over the years by the advance of capitalism has sparked some new interests in the Straubs' cinema, among them a growing curiosity for the figuration of nature. As Huillet herself would recognize in an interview granted to Benoît Goez in 1998, the perception of the physical transformations of nature and space in Italy, where the couple had moved in 1969, in fact brought to their films a new interrogation in relation to the directions of the contemporary world: in Italy, according to her, "we see a destruction in progress that was not that of the war, of the last great European war, but that of a daily war that destroys everything that was already destroyed in Germany and in France. So we are forced to ask ourselves certain questions, questions that we were already asking ourselves before and that have been precipitated".

          Until the first half of the 1980s, it is possible to say that the entire relationship of the Straubs' cinema with nature will be measured by a very clear political concern with the historical marks and traces inscribed in space. This concern will never disappear - nor could it, since it is an ethical and formal principle of their mise-en-scène and their way of thinking and conceiving cinema -, but it is possible to say that a greater openness to the "nature question" will manifest itself discontinuously throughout the 1980s and 1990s. By "openness" one can understand, precisely, a greater responsiveness to the beauty, intensity, and movements proper to natural forces, an intensity that seems to resist, in its wild and irrational character, the domestication of man, the advances of progress, and economic and industrial exploitation.

           This concern places back within the Straubs' work the very conception of myth and mythological narratives, which come to serve not only as allegories of historical conflicts, but as proof, or rather, as historical evidence of a knowledge and a sensibility that once existed, but which were absent from modern man's relationship with the forces of nature. Myths would thus be, to recall Danièle Huillet's expression, the historical reminiscence of a remote time when intelligence still came from the senses.


           If it is possible to say that Too Early/Too Late (1980-81) synthesizes the problematic of the land from the point of view of its historical relation to labor and class struggle (summarizing, through the essayistic-documentary register, the previous experience of films such as Moses and Aaron, Fortini/Cani and From the Clouds to the Resistance), the film in which nature appears in the most intense and exuberant way in the Straubs' cinema is without a doubt The Death of Empedocles (1986), inspired by Friedrich Hölderlin's unfinished tragedy, whose three versions were written between 1798 and 1799, but never published during the poet's life. To this movie, itself finalized in four different versions, one should also add Black Sin (1988), made by the directors two years later from the third version of the play.

            Within the Straubs' oeuvre, these two films reconnect with the question about the separation of man and nature that the first dialogue of From the Clouds to the Resistance, "The Cloud," already anticipated: "A limit has been imposed on you, men. The water, the wind, the rock and the cloud are no longer your things, you can no longer possess them, begetting and living." This question, however, throughout the film, was left aside in favor of reflection on resistance and class struggle. In The Death of Empedocles, however, the awareness of the violation performed against the world by economic advance and capitalist logic, on the one hand, and the appeal to a less instrumental and rational conception of nature, on the other, would occupy a privileged position. This awareness was materialized in the film eloquently and in very precise ways, especially in the treatment of space, in the openness to natural movements and forces, and, of course, in the sunny, overflowing enthusiasm of Hölderlinian poetry. By staging Hölderlin's text amidst the lush Sicilian landscape (not coincidentally, where the play's action itself takes place), the Straubs produce a powerful play of echoes and remissions between words and space, to the point that the actors' own recitation sometimes seems tied to natural movements. Indeed, even the expressive - and for Straubs, "expressionistic" - variations of light manifest themselves in this movie not as an external feature, but as a kind of pulsation, a breathing within nature.

            Between From the Clouds to the Resistance and These Encounters of Theirs, this difference is also quite noteworthy. It is remarkable, for instance, how the bodies of the actors in the latter movie seem to want to blend in, to let themselves be enveloped by the environment. The unnatural relationship of the bodies with the space in the 1978 film is replaced by a much more harmonious and gentler configuration, in which this same body no longer seems to refuse contact, touch, and intimacy with the world around it. In the dialogues where this relationship is more evident, such as "The Mystery" and "The Muses", the actors' bodies seem to not only accommodate to nature, but to extend it; their postures fit into the curves of the trees, correct the balance of space, complete its angles and undulations. Moreover, postures and gestures often draw the borders of the frame upward, so that the scene seems at the same time rooted in the ground and moved by a suspended, ascending impetus (a very representative image, by the way, of the paradox that illustrates the duality of the Hölderlinian poet).

          The same goes for the sound of These Encounters of Theirs. The cadenced rhythm of the dialogue and the long pauses between the actors' lines make the natural sounds, captured with a level of detail far superior to From the Clouds to the Resistance, participate in the scene in a much richer and more penetrating way. In an almost opposite way to Othon, in which the deafening noise of modern Rome threatened the intelligibility of the dialogue, causing a strangeness that emphasized the "distance" of the play in relation to the context in which it was staged, in These Encounters of Theirs the sound of the wind, birdsong, and insect noises seem to naturally welcome the characters' lines.


          Another common theme in both The Death of Empedocles and These Encounters of Theirs concerns the mediating role of the poet and the poetic word in the context of the "estrangement from the gods". For Hölderlin, poetry would be responsible for awakening in man the consciousness of the divine that, due to the violence and senselessness of the world, had abandoned him. As José Paulo Paes wrote about the German poet in his book O Regresso dos Deuses: "The gods become visible when man gives them a name, and in the connection of naming with the divine is revealed the sacredness of the word. To name the divine is to recognize it, to try to bring it down to earth, to present it again to men.

             It is not trivial, therefore, that the filmmakers have chosen in These Encounters of Theirs precisely the last five encounters of Dialogues with Leucó. From the point of view of the internal architecture of the novel, they serve as a kind of negative of the first part. In the first place, because they seem to be presented as the closing of a cycle - dramatized especially in "The Deluge" -, while dialogues like "The Cloud", "The Chimera" or "The Mares" clearly marked the inauguration of a new time, which would be lived under the rule of law and order instituted by Olympus. Secondly, in dialogues like "The Men", "The Mystery" and "The Flood" it is no longer the men who wish to resemble the gods, but the opposite, it is the deities who discuss - and not infrequently envy - the mysteries and gifts of men (in an allusion to the theme of Herodotus' "envy of the gods")

            And third, these last five dialogues indicate a final turning point in relation to the value attributed to words and names. No longer created and pronounced by the gods, but by men, and associated henceforth with poetry and memory, they are treated here as the absolute antithesis of the regulatory and discriminatory power of laws (as was the case, for example, in "The Blind Men"). In "The Men," Crato laments to Bia the strange habit of Zeus, the almighty, of walking and living among men: "...that he, the same celestial being who there on the Mount promised us these gifts, should leave the lofty heights and go indulge his whims and become a man among men, I do not like." To her friend's indignation, unable to understand the reason for the god's incursions into the mortal world, Bia replies:

Brother, brother, will you or will you not understand that the world, no longer being divine, is for that very reason always new  and rich to the one who comes down from the Mount? The word of  man, in the knowledge that it suffers and stirs and possesses the earth, reveals wonders to those who hear it - wonders. The young gods, coming from the lords of Chaos, all walk the earth among men. And if any retain a love for the mountainous places, the caves, the hostile skies, they do so because now men have arrived there too, and their voice loves to violate those silences.

            Besides the defense of nature, there is also, in the approach to myth made by These Encounters of Theirs the praise of an ancient way of knowing that takes place in the sharing and affirmation of the word - and above all the oral word. Not necessarily the sacred word of the gods or the prophetic word of the priests, but the common word around which men, throughout the centuries, have thought and understood their reality. Well, what the filmmakers themselves have put in place throughout their entire cinema was nothing but a real "war machine" against the numbing, the domestication and the bureaucratization of the word. Their entire cinema, moreover, is a concentrated effort towards restoring (and demonstrating) the embellishing, sensitizing, and transformative potential of the word. Indeed, both These Encounters of Theirs and Sicilia! (1999), in the beautiful scene of the final meeting with the knife sharpener, function as a literal, wonderfully didactic affirmation of this program.

             Unlike From the Clouds to Resistance, therefore, in which Marxist allegory meant that the ancient gods were identified with modern bosses - situating them on the side of the power that alienates, disciplines, and violates man's freedom - in Hölderlin, as well as in the late Straub-Pavese, the world's state of destitution is due, at least in part, to the estrangement of men and gods - or, if you will, to a kind of "disenchantment of the world." No other film, no other Straubs' image has been able to synthesize this awareness more accurately than the final shot of These Encounters of Theirs. With a vertical movement, the camera traverses the filthy stream of a modern village, until it finds an electric wire that separates the screen into two parts: on the upper side, the blue sky, occupying two thirds of the frame, and on the lower side, the top of a mountain. One doesn't need to know that in ancient times mountain tops were the privileged meeting place between men and the gods to understand the "message" of this final shot: men separated themselves from the gods, or rather, from the earth and nature, giving up the vital need and the poetic sensibility that allowed them to experience them in another manner. These are exactly the "encounters" to which the title refers, by appropriating a beautiful passage from the last dialogue of the film, "The Gods", in which two hunters talk on top of a mountain:

- And do you believe in the monsters, the bodies seized by beasts, the living stones, the divine smiles, the words that annihilate?
- I believe in what every man has hoped for and suffered. If they ever ascended to these heights of stones or sought mortal dwellings under the sky, it was because they found something that we do not know. It was not bread or pleasure or the cherished health. These things, we know where they are. Not here. And we who live far away, by the sea or in the fields, the other thing we miss.
- So say the thing.
- You already know. Those Encounters with them.

            The Pavese that the Straubs present in These Encounters of Theirs is a luminous poet, solar, that shows towards men and land a touching tenderness – which brings him close, once again, to Hölderlin. This lightness is not something the Straubs earned despite the Italian author, but thanks to him. What the filmmakers do is opening breaches in those dialogues so one can hear the breathing around it, it is to give the pavesian characters the simplicity and dignity of ordinary men, it is to film nature so to show, as one of the hunters say, “that a tree, a stone cut in the sky were gods from the beginning”.


* This article is an edited version of the master’s dissertation "O cinema de Straub e Huillet: diálogos com Pavese" (UFMG, 2013), published here with the author’s authorization. The full dissertation can be read in Portuguese here.

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