Jean-Marie Straub – O somma luce (2010)

Taking the last verses of Paradise in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Straub extends the same didactic/exploratory tendencies he already was trying with texts by Cesare Pavese in Dalla nube alla resistenza (1979) and its sequel, Quei loro incontri (2006). Now, the meditation deals with repetition, light, and absence, using Edgar Varèse’s genius in an introduction that sets a somber tone so what comes next would be pure light and sublimation. (

There’s no denying that the late work of Jean-Marie Straub can be highly forbidding, even by the tough-minded, rigorous standards established throughout his career with his late partner Daniéle Huillet. Ironically, one of the aspects of Straub-Huillet work that has made it so challenging, so seemingly resistant to immediate viewing comprehension as well as closer analysis, is the fact that on its surface it often appears quite simple. The Straubian method entails shooting with direct sound, minimal camera movement, and a highly focused, almost declamatory performance style that foregrounds the text being presented rather than any actorly or theatrical values. There is almost a “readers’ theatre” quality to Straub’s films. But if one were forced to generalize about this highly developed method, it would probably be most correct to say that it stakes out a territory between two kinds of modernism.. On the one hand, the modernism of Clement Greenberg is present, in that these films insist upon the separation of their elements and the maintenance of each contributing artform in its irreducible specificity. Writing remains writing, not theatre; music is music; and film, film. On the other hand, Straub employs the modernist intransigence of Theodor Adorno’s “negative dialectic.” The films exist as aesthetic objects, in a relative autonomy. But they simultaneously gesture outward, into the material specificity of the landscape they occupy, the concrete visual and soundworld that envelops the filmic act, but does not transform it into fiction (or vice versa). Straub’s method maintains a tension between a documentary foundation — that which is recorded in the profilmic scene — and a rehearsal or reconstitution of the creative energies of a previous moment in history — the instantiation of a text or set of texts not from the “now.” From an Adornian standpoint, these two times might one day be reconciled in a utopian social form as yet unformulated. For now, their irreconcilability indicates the work we still have before us.

In some ways, O somma luce is the most satisfying of Straub’s landscape based works, although I hesitate to say so. I tend to find it the most open and inviting of his films since Huillet’s passing. But I don’t entirely trust this impression, and even as I articulate it I wonder if perhaps I missed some complicating nuances. Here, the separation of aesthetic elements is made nearly absolute, and while Straub has mined this terrain before, O somma luce’s use of stark sensory contrast is more explicitly bolstered through the film’s own thematics. The first eight or so minutes of the film are imageless black digital video. Inside this “video void” (to borrow David Larcher’s term), we hear one of the most distinctive works in the modern repertoire, Déserts (first movement) by Edgard Varèse. This 1954 chamber work, which includes electronic elements on tape, is notable for its wide ranging dynamics — piercing horns, pealing bells, a substantial percussion variance at the base, and generally a great deal of sonic space throughout. In a sense, Déserts is a logical extension of the explorations one finds in Mahler (a Straub favorite), while Varèse has clearly abandoned tonality for clusters of sound that, for lack of the technical expertise to describe them, I would have to call primal in their sense of generative force. This could be said to rhyme, in a broad sense, with Straub’s cinematic use of space and landscape. There is a radical particularity in the land formations Straub commits to film or video; in using the camera to register a place’s sonic existence, or its reflected light, Straub is also giving us a concrete segment of its accumulated physical history, practically a core sample. So in that regard, Déserts is music that hints at pure sound, the sound between sounds, and the molecular level of deep listening.

The final few notes of the movement are heard in a “sound bleed,” a (literally) pivotal moment in O somma luce. This half-second, which takes us from darkness to light, is so out of character with Straub’s customary insistence on separation, and on unadulterated straight cuts, that it is quite shocking indeed. Of course, in the context of another filmmaker’s work, it wouldn’t register as anything strange at all. But there is something in the explicit themes of O somma luce which could explain why such an uncharacteristic transition seemed like Straub’s best choice. This pivot, after all, gives us a moment of “total cinema,” of music, text, performance, and conventional editing — an Adornian utopia, if you will — which then slips away. Afterward, we are in a rustic but nondescript Italian landscape, rocky hills in the background, as actor Giorgio Passerone reads Canto XXXIII from Dante’s Paradiso. This Canto is the story of the creation and recognition of Light. In fact, in its description of moving from darkness to illumination, ignorance to knowledge, Canto III clearly prefigures the “Untutored Eye” doctrine of Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision. Dante was an obvious influence of Brakhage, and just as Brakhage posited a pre- and post-lapsarian narrative of light-bathed sensation and the subsequent fall into language, so O somma luce presents an unexpected “knot” of confluence (the music / image union) which is instantly thrown into the past the minute its existence is even recognized. This desire to reclaim the moment of Light’s epiphany, while recognizing its impossibility, is encapsulated in lines 67 through 75 of Dante’s Canto: “O Light exalted beyond mortal thought, / grant that in memory I see again / but one small part of how you then appeared / and grant my tongue sufficient power / that it may leave behind a single spark / of glory for the people yet to come, / since, if you return but briefly to my mind / and then resound but softly in these lines, / the better will your victory be conceived.”

It is, interestingly, at this point in O somma luce that Passerone pauses, picks his script up from the ground, adjusts his glasses, and continues reading. The film then cuts to a left to right tracking shot of the skyline above the landscape, with mountains in the background. The shot ends on a thicket of brush tangled in a ragged fence. Straub repeats this arc (Heideggerian earth and sky, down to the banal ground of private property) twice, with slightly different qualities of sunlight. During this segment, Passerone reads the following lines: “substances, accidents, and the interplay between them, / as though they were conflated in such ways / that what I tell is but a simple light. / I believe I understood the universal form / of this dense knot because I feel my joy expand, / rejoicing as I speak of it.” That is to say, Dante believes that he can extract the sense of Holy Light from the ordinary, profane illuminations surrounding him. O soma luce clearly agrees, but from the same sort of standpoint that, once upon a time, “stood Hegel on his head.” “Exalted Light” is the close, sensual appreciation of this world, the only one within which we’re privileged to exist, the one we are charged with stewarding. For Straub, this is the materialist reading of Dante. It’s Canto XXXIII, refracted through the window of “Feuerbach” Thesis 11. (

DVD Source: Unknown (via Pando), all region, DVD5
DVD Format: PAL
DVD Audio: Italian Stereo
Program: DVDxDV Pro; Compressor; DvdStudioPro.
Menus: new
Video: Reencoded
Audio: Reencoded
DVD extras: none


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One comment

  1. Thank you very much!

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