PRINT April 2011


Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte

Michelangelo Frammartino, Le quattro volte (Four Times), 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 88 minutes.

THE FIRST CALABRIAN animist-Neorealist process film inspired by Pythagoras’s conception of metempsychosis, shot in long takes with no dialogue or music track, Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (Four Times) sounds daunting but is far from. A mystical chronicle based on the Greek philosopher’s four stages of spiritual reincarnation—human, animal, vegetable, mineral—the film maintains an aura of rigor and mystery but ends up more ingratiating than austere. The residue of decay forms its central motif: primordial loam venting smoke in the film’s precredit images; dirt swept from a church floor and packaged as a curative powder; swirling dust motes backlit to resemble a softly glimmering cosmos; embers crumbling in a metal tray; the remains of a tree reduced to obsidian stumps of charcoal. In Frammartino’s rapt traversal of a soul’s transmigration from a tubercular old shepherd to a newborn goat and then to a majestic fir, all flesh is grass, all matter turning to ash, dust, cinder, and soil, but the soul passes through cycles of being that extend its existence. Death does not denote surcease.

A fond observer of local superstizione and an advocate of Slow Cinema and its depiction of process, Frammartino quietly describes the making of the elixir the herdsman takes for his respiratory malady, a potion produced with sweepings from the floor of the local church. When a packet of the “holy dust” accidentally drops from the old man’s pocket as he defecates in a field—after Lisandro Alonso and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, shitting in the wild has become a trope of international art-house cinema—his fate is sealed, and he dies in his ascetic room, rasping and alone. In a few blunt edits, he is entombed, then reborn as a goat, slithering out of its mother’s belly slick with afterbirth and mewling miserably while struggling to stand on unsteady legs. Trapped in a ditch and separated from its flock, its death implied but not shown, the kid cedes its soul to a fir tree. (Frammartino accords its gnarled bark a close-up, much as he did the faces of the man and the animal.) Cut down, its trunk stripped, chopped up, and then slowly burned to a few sacks of charcoal in sequences of preindustrial procedure, the tree seems both an artisanal metaphor for the director’s stylistic method of dépouillement—he, too, aims to reduce things to their essence by removing all excess—and a marker of the film’s strict symmetry: As it began with smoke, so it ends, with an oft-seen dormant chimney vent finally emitting a smoldering plume. The arc of the film’s narrative closes, as does its “circle of life.”

Much of Le quattro volte, including its religious procession and its lovingly detailed bestiary, can be traced back to Il dono (The Gift, 2003), Frammartino’s first feature, a poetic-ethnographic portrait of his ancestral hometown, Caulonia, also the locale for the new film. Passionately allied to the old, the obsolete, and the castoff, Frammartino fastens on medieval streets and ancient faces in his immured village, boats abandoned on the nearby beach, and detritus in the surrounding forest. (After the sixth weathered peasant visage and fourth derelict vessel, the prevailing air of ruination becomes a little too insistent and picturesque.) Anticipating the circular structure of Volte, Il dono opens with a death and burial (of a sickly dog) and closes with a self-administered interment (of the dog’s old owner, the grizzled precursor to Volte’s shepherd). Like Apichatpong, with whom Frammartino shares an attachment to shots of sunlight through wind-gusted trees, the Italian director is given to correspondence and reiteration, the incantatory refrain of repeated shots, recurring locations, and rhymed incidents. In Volte, for instance, he films the entombment of the shepherd’s coffin from inside the crypt as it is sealed, the final stone shutting off all light, plunging the screen into utter darkness, a procedure that will be repeated at film’s end when the tree is walled up in the charcoal furnace. As the last slats are arranged to sequester the wood for burning, the screen again goes completely black. Placing the camera within these confined spaces indicates a kind of mystical adherence to the souls being interred—the position oddly functions as a classic “point of view” shot—but also bespeaks the director’s unconventional sense of inner and outer space.

Originally trained as an architect (again like Apichatpong), Frammartino rejects traditional definitions of interior and exterior, emphasizing instead the porous and pervious nature of that divide. “Perhaps it stems from my interest in contradictory spaces,” he once told Andreas Wiseman. “In Tarkovsky’s films there are often places that exist inside and outside at the same time. In Stalker, for example, there is that room in which it rains. These kinds of spaces are common in villages like Caulonia. When I was a child the shepherds would bring their goats into the house. And doors were always open. In Calabria, you enter the room and then ask whether you can come in. And people sit outside with their tables and chairs.” In Le quattro volte, the filmmaker extends this sense of porosity from the architectural to the numinous: Every entity seems open to a transference of soul.

André Bazin, cinema’s great champion of realism in the service of the Spirit, would surely admire Frammartino’s locked-shot determination to capture “an imprint of the duration of the object”—Il dono records the forging of a metal hoop as patiently as Volte chronicles the making of charcoal—and his emphasis on spatial continuity; but Bazin would be most delighted by the Italian director’s menagerie. The French theorist of Neorealism, who wrote extensively on animals in film and doted on his parrot Coco, might find in Le quattro volte a portrait of bestial being as convincing as that of the dog he so admired in De Sica’s Umberto D. In the most enchanting stretch of Le quattro volte, we spend considerable time with the billy-protagonist and his fellow creatures, inquisitive kids that play King of the Mountain with any available elevation (a cinder block, a table) and are frightened by a falling broom. Whether Frammartino’s affinity with the flock shades into anthropomorphism is arguable, but his evocation of its daily existence remains the most vivid of the film’s four stages of being (and narrative). Not that the goats control the whole entropic show. A pail of unruly snails has its lid-bursting moment, and in the most celebrated sequence in the film, a border collie called Vuk does a star turn in which he confronts an Easter procession of centurions, is chased away, and then, seemingly in mischievous revenge, creates havoc by snatching a rock propped against the wheels of a red truck, which slides back and crashes into a goat pen, loosing the animals upon the town’s empty streets. Captured by a high-angled, swiveling camera in a miraculously choreographed single shot and recalling a similar incident in Il dono involving a runaway ball, the episode has been compared to Tati and Keaton but has the droll, absurdist air of that Georgian master of run-on sight gags, Otar Iosseliani.

Frammartino’s cinema clearly falls into the category French critic Antony Fiant calls “films gueules de bois”—roughly, “films with dry mouths”—a phrase suggesting hangover but meant to signify a mutist aesthetic. Indeed, Frammartino’s almost total linguistic abstention, in which an occasional phrase such as “Via! Via!” punctuates the predominant sounds of nature, makes Fiant’s many examples, which include Jia Zhangke, Claire Denis, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, seem loquacious by comparison. In Frammartino’s case, language is not so much suspect or deceptive as unnecessary, just one more sound in a vast polyphony of brays and barks, the whispering wind, and the noise of everyday labor: a knife being sharpened, the gullying of water away from a laundry stone, the whine of a chain saw. Just as Frammartino’s elliptical editing sometimes suggests shots, like objects, being laid side by side, his materialist sound tracks grant a heightened, autonomous presence to sounds such as the glassy clatter of incinerated logs being pitchforked or the incessant bells of his beloved goats. Like his inspiration Pythagoras, the Italian director hears music in the strangest places.

Le quattro volte opens at Film Forum in New York on March 30.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.