Friday, 3 June 2011

le quattro volte (w&d michelangelo frammartino)

It's a wonderful thing that cinema can do when you come to something in ignorance and leave in awe. Of course it cannot happen all the time, or else we'd never do anything else: it would be the best drug ever invented. (In a way perhaps the moving image, is just that). But when it does there are few things better than sitting in the black box and watching another vision of the world take shape before your very eyes.

Le Quattro Volte, and I almost say this between clenched teeth, is a small miracle of a film. Between clenched teeth because in some ways it might have been made to have been discussed and marvelled at over middle class dinner tables, and in singing its praises I might be seen as a middle class diner, or dining table. It is set in a picturesque village in rural Southern Italy (one of the few thoughts which disrupted my enjoyment of the film was the notion that, as in parts of France or Spain, it would not seem unlikely that swathes of the village might have been or will be bought up by those dining Brits), and it has nothing very threatening about it at all, excepting the odd goat. This is not a film that's presaging or even casting much of a nod at societal upheaval or global catastrophe. If you wanted to you could accuse it of being twee. However, no matter how twee it might be (and shots of a kid goat, stumbling lost through a wood, might be deemed very twee indeed), it is also brilliantly made.

I'm not sure exactly what the four in the title refers to as the film consists of three stories. One recounts the last days of a taciturn, gnarled goatherd. The second recounts the first days of a kid goat. The last recounts the last rites of a tree. All three are ingeniously connected, one story leading into another. All deal with the most profound of issues: birth, death, and what it means to live, as either animal, vegetable or human. Yet the film brings the lightest of touches to all this profundity. There's a barrel load of wit in the way it uses the camera as spy, or voyeur, on the three stories. Not least in a bravura sequence which precedes the goatherd's death, and manages to integrate Roman legionnaires, the passion of Christ, a demented dog and a flock of wayward goats. In the course of which it obliquely touches on the peculiar but vital life of the village itself.

The villagers remain bit part players in this sly documentary. (Is this a drama or a documentary? Both, or neither? This genre bending is another of its achievements.) When a villager turns, conscious of the camera, then tries to get out of the way, the deceit of the camera's anonymity is deliberately ruptured. At the same time, the host of cavorting villagers can be compared to a group of young cavorting goats, who likewise have their games and social structures, which the camera observes. There is a bizarre humanity latent in these goats, who will be born and get lost and ruminate and eventually die, just like we do. The interweaving of human and animal stories does more than any nature documentary ever could to illustrate how we are all mere creatures, with our curious practices, doing our best to get by under the big sky.

If Quattro Volte reminded me of anything it was perhaps some of Calvino's fables. The film shares his wry, ahistorical observation of rural existence and customs perpetrated since the time of the Romans and before. Things that go beyond language (this is a film without dialogue). If there's been any better exploration of what nature means and the way in which we, as humans, are part of it, no more nor less than a goat or a tree, I have yet to see it. Frammartino's film seems to have appeared out of nowhere like a natural phenomenon itself, laden with a wry wisdom and a pantheistic intelligence.

1 comment: said...

Pythagorus said each
of us has 4 lives within us.
The Mineral.
The Vegetable.
The Animal.
And The Human.
Thus must we know ourselves
these 1,2,3,4 times over.