The world turns, without a word
By Michael O’Sullivan
Thursday, April 28, 2011
The stars of “Le Quattro Volte” are, in order of appearance, an old man, a baby goat, a giant tree and a charcoal kiln. In point of fact, the kiln appears briefly at the very start of this remarkable Italian film by writer-director Michelangelo Frammartino, but it’s not until the end that we know what we were looking at.
Each subject — “protagonist” is too active a word — defines one of four chapters of the movie, which looks like a documentary but isn’t and which contains nary a word of audible and/or significant dialogue. There are one or two instances of murmured (and, in one case, shouted) Italian, but there are no subtitles provided, and none is needed.
It is a devastating, profound and at times surreal work of art.
The title of Frammartino’s film translates as “The Four Times,” a reference to the notion that Man, like the world itself, embodies the human, the animal, the vegetable and the mineral. Each chapter is separated by a screen blackout in which one of those four elements of nature transmigrates, as it were, into the next.
For instance: At the center of the first chapter is a elderly goatherd (Giuseppe Fuda). We watch as he and his charges move back and forth every day between pen and grazing field. Each night, the old man mixes a bit of dust from the floor of the village church into water — an old folk remedy — and drinks it to alleviate a bad cough. One night he fails to procure the dust and passes away in his sleep.
Almost immediately, a goat is born, on camera.
In this manner, the film progresses. The goat is eventually separated from the herd and takes shelter under a tree. Seasons pass. The tree is cut down. Ultimately the wood is placed in a massive kiln, where it becomes coal.
The cycle of life.
Except that this assessment does not begin to take the measure of “Le Quattro Volte,” which embraces nothing and everything at the same time. Frammartino’s camera shifts its attention — and ours — from an ant crawling on the old man’s craggy face to, at one point, the very air itself, which the filmmaker finds a way to make as substantial as a pine.
Along the way, we catch glimpses of rural life in Calabria, where the film is set. There is a passion play going on in the background of several scenes, with a costumed Jesus and Roman soldiers. On its way to the kiln, the tree is used as the centerpiece of Pita, an ancient festival with pagan roots.
But merely describing what happens in “Le Quattro Volte” feels feeble when compared with the impact of watching it unfold. It sounds slow to the point of monotonous. And Frammartino’s camera sometimes pulls away from exactly what you might think he should be pointing it at, as in a masterfully comic, minutes-long take involving a dog, a truck with bad brakes and the aforementioned goats.
But the film is never boring. My 11-year-old son watched it, rapt, as if it were a sneak preview of the new “Harry Potter” movie. And Frammartino knows exactly what he wants to draw our gaze to, at every second. It is, succinctly put, the whole of creation.
Contains a death and a birth.