Mysterious Harmonies

BY TERRENCE RAFFERTY

THE SICILIAN landscapes of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s new film, Chaos, arc timeless and alienating all at once, like the surface of the moon. Everything in them—the abrupt outcroppings of rock, the ruins of ancient buildings, the walls that seem stacks of jagged stone, the brusque alternation of lush groves and bleak fields—looks as if it once belonged to something else, to a terrain we might recognize if all the broken pieces came back together. It’s a movie of pieces too, an anthology of four self-contained narratives based on stories by Luigi Pirandello, made by a pair of brothers who collaborate by directing alternate scenes. The tales are linked only by swooping aerial shots from the point of view of a raven flying over the countryside and by an epilogue that shows Pirandello’s return, after many years, to his native Sicily, the source of his stories. But Chaos has a remarkable unity of style and vision. By the end of the film, when Pirandello meets the ghost of his mother, who tells him to “learn to see things with the eyes of those who see them no more” and who then recounts a shimmering childhood memory of her own, it feels as if all the broken bits of narrative, of history, of individual experience, had joined up again, had become at last a single story.

This is a mythic, romantic effect, a feeling that only the most conscious art, or the most innocent, can evoke. The Tavianis, who are both in their fifties, are experienced filmmakers and longtime Marxists. They have arrived at their current simplicity through years of experimenting with styles and ideas: documentaries in the fifties, Godardian political dramas in the sixties and early seventies, and the rich blend of fable and argument that they have been refining since their first international success, Padre Padrone (1977). No Taviani film earlier than the 1974 Allonsanfan has been distributed in the United States, but that film (released here only this year) provided hints of the more uncompromising aesthetic program that preceded their current manner. Allonsanfan, telling the story of a group of failed nineteenth-century revolutionaries who called themselves the “sublime brothers,” consistently sacrificed its historical drama to stark, schematic compositions and long passages of political debate. The 1980 film The Meadow, a lugubrious contemporary morality play, seemed a partial regression to that overly cerebral mode, and it didn’t find much of an audience. The Tavianis’ best movies—Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars (1983), and Chaos—don’t abandon history or ideas but turn them into vital, even stirring, narratives.

Padre Padrone is based on the autobiography of the Sardinian linguist Gavino Ledda, who was raised among shepherds, illiterate and virtually alone until the age of twenty. It’s set in an island landscape as harsh and barren as Sicily’s, and in an even wilder, more primitive society. Sardinia looks like no more than an idea of a place to live, a blank slate that is humanized by tremendous efforts of will, or not at all— and the Tavianis, like their protagonist, make the effort. We can feel their determination to shake this world to life. The movie is deliberately jarring, both visually and aurally, with human figures isolated in extreme long shots or paired in intimate, claustrophobic compositions, and with a sound track whose long silences are pierced by cries (human or animal), sudden music, sounds whose sources can’t always be identified. T he Tavianis adapted Ledda’s book very freely, adding a variety of distancing techniques and touches of the fantastic (at one point we even hear the thoughts of the sheep) to his straightforward narrative. Ledda’s story is about his progress from inarticulateness to communication, and the Tavianis seem to have conceived of the task of adaptation as a vigorous, emphatic conversation with the author.

The difficult beauties of Padre Padrone are generated mostly by its intellectual rigor. The Tavianis don’t presume to get too close to Ledda or to his frighteningly ignorant father, who is determined to block his son’s passage from the isolated sheepfold to the articulate world outside. They schematize the story, but with such precision and force that the movie’s argument turns into a kind of poetry. In an early scene, when Gavino is six, his father—who has just torn him out of the classroom and put him to work on his own, tending sheep—shows him how to identify the sounds of his lonely post. It’s night, and the boy hears nothing until his father says, “T he oak,” and the camera pans from a close-up of the child’s ear through the darkness to an ancient, rustling tree, and our ears fill with the sound of what we’re seeing. Later, when Gavino is miserably alone with his father’s sheep, he hears a garish, sprightly music—a full band on the sound track, but really just a young man with an accordion walking down the road. Gavino trades two sheep for the instrument, which sounds bleating and disharmonious until he learns, through trial and error, to arrange the notes in song. When Gavino finally leaves home to join the army, at first he can’t interpret the sounds of the town where he’s posted; when he returns, knowing Italian as well as his native Sardinian dialect, his father sees him listening to a symphony on the radio and goes into a murderous rage—his son is being transported, gone for good, and the father would rather see him dead than forever outside the fold.

GAVINO LKDD.VS experience, transformed by the ferocious attack of the Tavianis’ style, becomes a kind of myth of the varieties of human articulation, of language and music—the sounds that take us far from home and return us changed, individual, mysteriously complicated. Education in Padre Padrone is inseparable from the pain and joy of exile, of being thrust into the world. When the Tavianis, six years later, transformed their own memories into The Night of the Shooting Stars, the story of a group of refugees from San Martino, a Tuscan village, at the end of the Second World War, their style had mellowed but the theme remained constant: the villagers, forced by German occupiers and homegrown Fascists to leave their homes, become different people on the road, seeing fantastic things, performing heroic deeds, learning the unfamiliar world. The directors’ technique is no less conscious and no less diverse than it was in Padre Padrone, but the tone is softer, more lyrical—perhaps because the movie assumes, partially, the innocence of a tale told to a child, and perhaps because the Tuscan countryside, scarred by the war, has the poignance of a landscape only recently ruined, not blasted from the beginning of time like Sardinia’s.

The experiences the villagers of San Martino have are large-scale, made larger yet by the epic distortions of the narrator, who was a girl of six at the time and is now a grown woman recounting the fabulous events to her own child. The emotional responses they evoke, both in the characters and in the audience, are extreme: exhilaration and deep sorrow, following one another so swiftly and unpredictably that they seem a single feeling. The Tavianis are by no means innocents, but they do remember the undifferentiated wonder with which children respond to experience, and they respect it enough to acknowledge that even the worst things— the horrors of war—can produce a kind of rapture if we’ve never seen them before.

The people of San Martino, escaping by night, listen in darkness to the sounds of the village exploding, their way of life disappearing, and throw away their keys to homes that no longer exist. Along the way several of the men change their names, becoming “Achilles” or “Owl” or “Requiem,” to join a resistance group and fight a brutal, almost comically impassioned battle against the Fascists in a wheat field. The grand events seem to give the smaller, more ordinary incidents an extra charge, a fuller resonance. Near the end, after the convulsive struggle in the wheat field, the leader of the expedition, an old man named Galvano, for the first time sleeps with a woman he fell in love with forty years earlier, now a very proper grandmother on the road without her family; it’s like a reward after a wearying and anxious odyssey, and we know it’s something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, in the steady life of the village. This small miracle occurs in another village on the eve of the feast of San Lorenzo, the night of the shooting stars— the night, the narrator tells us, when all wishes are granted. The old couple wake the morning after to a larger miracle, the arrival of the liberating American troops. Everyone starts, exultantly, the return journey to San Martino, but Galvano, a little dazed, shaken by all that has happened, isn’t ready to go—he wants to sit a while in the square of this other village, in this sunny, refreshing rain, and let all he has seen and heard and felt soak into his skin.

Omero Antonutti, who plays Galvano (and also the terrifying father in Padre Padrone), reappears as Pirandello at the end of Chaos, coming home to Girgenti, Sicily, after years of seeing his birthplace only in his mind—of reinventing it, from a distance, in the stories we’ve been watching. The actor’s face is the first of many echoes in this great, daring sequence: when Antonutti turns up after four tales told with almost baffling simplicity and elegance, he seems to return us to the complex sensibility of the earlier Taviani films. He’s a spirit leading us from the bright, clear, folkloric world back to our home territory of doubt, dim memories, and overburdened consciousness.

Pirandello, exhausted by the rigors of his life in Rome, has slept all the way to Girgenti, and when the train arrives— sounding at first like the wind howling through the peasant graveyard at the end of the last tale—he’s rudely awakened and virtually hurled from his compartment, as abruptly as a baby being born. He’s disoriented, and so are we. He has to place himself again in the land he came from, and he looks blank, uncomfortable, estranged—just as the real Gavino Ledda looked when the Tavianis brought him on screen for the conclusion of Padre Padrone. (Pirandello and Ledda have more than a look and a narrative function in common: each wrote a doctoral thesis on the dialect of his native island.) And we have to place ourselves in a different relation to the stories we’ve seen, to consider them, perhaps, as not just shapely individual anecdotes about a village madwoman, a moonstruck husband, a greedy landowner, and wily peasants but the dreams of a great modernist writer as he travels through the world.

Once Pirandello appears, the movie begins to transform itself in our minds. 1’he story of the madwoman who is obsessed with her two sons in America, who haven’t written her in fourteen years, becomes a parable of distance and memory. The tale of the young husband who goes mad whenever the moon is full seems now to have something to do with alienation, the individual mysteries that abruptly separate us from our surroundings. The landlord’s enormous broken jar in the third story suggests an image of a divided world, a classical harmony disrupced. The final tale, about an outlaw community fighting to have its own cemetery, appears to propose a bleak remedy for disharmony—a reunion with the earth, the land made home by the presence of the dead. The stories are still, of course, primarily what they seemed at first to be: plain but ingeniously constructed fictions. The Tavianis mean only to estrange us a little from our initial responses, to make us see the stories fresh, through the eyes and the divided consciousness—half traditional, half modern—of their author.

Chaos is a brilliantly structured work, but the beauty of its imagery transcends the conscious sophistication of the Tavianis’ design. In Pirandello’s conversation with his mother’s ghost we can identify the filmmakers’ characteristic ideas. The dead woman tells her son the story of a childhood adventure, a journey in a fishing boat with a red sail to visit her father, a political exile on Malta—it’s a tale her son has heard a hundred times before but has never succeeded in transforming into one of his own stories. Recalling her feelings on the trip, she speaks of her “uneasiness about so many new things.” She says, “’That’s what exile meant: new things to be gazed at” — and we hear in her voice the vertiginous, disorienting sensation of fresh experience, the distinctive tone of the Tavianis.

This time, though, the voice is unearthly, emanating from some privileged territory outside of time and consciousness, where the world is magically whole again and the moon has rejoined the earth. It’s a mythic territory, carved out of the Marxist romance of the return to an original, more integral human state, the healing of the divisions and alienations of modern history. When Pirandello’s mother tells of stopping on the way to Malta at a deserted island with massive inclines of gleaming white pumice, when we see her and her brothers and sisters scramble up the soft slopes of volcanic ash and tumble down them, ecstatically, into the sea, the image is so moving and so mysteriously lovely that we believe for a moment that the Tavianis’ art has found a truly magical source, a place where the ancient and the modern speak to each other, not as parents and rebellious children but as brothers. In Chaos, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have created one of those rare sequences, and rarer movies, that make film seem a language we’ve never really understood before. □