A Straub-Huillet Companion: “From the Clouds to the Resistance”

Straub-Huillet's first adaptation—perhaps inspired by Italo Calvino—of Italian novelist, poet, and translator Cesare Pavese.
Christopher Small

A Straub-Huillet Companion is a series of short essays on the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, subject of a MUBI retrospective. Straub-Huillet's From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979) is showing on MUBI from July 17 – August 15, 2019.

From the cloud, that is from the invention of the gods by man, to the resistance of the latter against the former as much as to the resistance against Fascism.

—Jean-Marie Straub

Being blind is a misfortune no greater than being alive.

—Dialogue spoken in the film

A friend who works for the Turin Film Festival was recently reminiscing with me about the time Danièle and Jean-Marie arrived in town to present a film in a beat-up minivan full of stray, flea-ridden cats and dogs. He said that then, of course, the question became: where the hell could the festival put Straub-Huillet up for the night with such a wild entourage of feline and canine comrades? The pair's outspoken political militancy, the idiosyncratic tempo and (initially, at least) the impenetrability of their movies, and Straub's own penchant for yelling at his perceived enemies have contributed to their reputation as unbending ideologues. Yet From the Clouds to the Resistance should count as much as a biographical tidbit such as this when mounting a defense of the Straubs as the tenderhearted animal lovers they in fact were.

Danièle and her husband produced this double adaptation of Cesare Pavese in 1978, based on Dialogues with Leucò and his last novel The Moon and the Bonfire. The former was a well-spring of inspiration for Straub-Huillet. The duo would return to it again in 2006 with the masterpiece These Encounters of Theirs, their final feature together, while Straub alone adapted it a further four times (Artemis's Knee, 2008; The Witches, Women Among Themselves, 2009; The Inconsolable One, 2011; The Mother, 2012). The whole first section, based on the Dialogues, is broken into six segments. In each, the case is made against the gods—for their unjust laws, their mistreatment of humans, but above all for their phony mysticism—and blunt parallels are drawn between humans and animals. In the second section, a man (identified as "Il Bastardo") returns to his village after amassing a fortune in America. The war is over but aspersions and barbed words are still cast in cafes and bars by men—their backs to the camera—who remain quietly loyal to fascism. He befriends a young boy from the village, whose father soon loses his mind and burns down his farm, killing himself, his wife, his daughters, and his animals.

It is striking that the pairing of these two Pavese works was first made by the great Italo Calvino in 1966, in an essay ("Pavese and Human Sacrifice") later included as the final chapter in his definitive Why Read the Classics? Calvino, also a novelist, was a contemporary of Pavese and Elio Vittorini, whom the Straubs also adapted (Sicilia!, 1999; Workers, Peasants, 2001). It is hard not to wonder if the duo were directly inspired to pair these two works after reading Calvino's essay on the writer. I can't find any mention of it after a few cursory searches online and in books on the Straubs. Nevertheless, it is worth quoting Calvino at length, as it sounds for a moment like the Italian is writing about a Straub-Huillet film:

Each one of Pavese's novels revolves around a hidden theme, something unsaid which is the real thing he wants to say and which can be expressed only by not mentioning it. All around it he constructs a tissue of signs that are visible, words that are uttered: each of these signs in turn has a secret side (a meaning that is either polyvalent or inexpressible) which counts more than its obvious one, but their real meaning lies in the relation which binds them to the unspoken theme.

Calvino writes of the village Marxist in The Moon and the Bonfire who is also a mystic, somebody "who recognises the injustices of the world and knows the world can change, but [is also] the one who continues to believe in the phases of the moon as essential for various agricultural activities." From the Clouds to the Resistance's materialist consideration of the links between rationality and superstition and—in a related way—man and animal is the closest the Straubs ever came to making a movie out of the quotation they loved by Rosa Luxemburg, about the fate of the injured insect struggling invisibly in the corner of the room being as important as the fate of the revolution.

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