Some films deny classification. Le quattro volte has a cast of characters and a narrative of sorts. It starts and ends with sounds and images presenting the charcoal burners of the mountains of Calabria in the far south of Italy. In between there are effectively four linked ‘stories’. These do not directly refer to the four seasons but instead to the four elements: human, animal, vegetable, mineral. There is virtually no dialogue or music in the film, but plenty of natural sounds – a soundscape in the truest sense to match the stunning landscape. This is a ‘fiction’ and there may be some ‘acting’ but the events depicted are ‘real’ and have been practised for centuries. The difference between this film and ‘poetic documentary’ seems marginal. In terms of thematic and ‘tone’ you could describe the film as being an essay on tradition, spirit, folklore etc. Its style places it in the frame for ‘slow cinema’ – a concept analogous to ‘slow food’ – it takes time to say something but what you get has intense flavours and is deeply satisfying.
Writer director Michelangelo Frammartino is a native of Calabria and in the fascinating Press Notes he explains that the philosophical underpinnings of the film derive from the work of Pythagoras (who taught in Calabria). Pythagoras introduced the idea of transmigration between human, animal, vegetable and mineral. In the image above the old goatherd in a mountain village takes an elixir made from the ashes produced in the local church – a form of pagan practise which he secretly follows thanks to the woman who tends the church. The goatherd is ‘watched over’ by his herd which in turn browses beneath the tree that provides the material for a village festival (another pagan event) and ultimately the basis for the charcoal and thus the ash. That’s more or less the cycle, but I’ve left out many of the interesting and on occasions emotionally charged events along the way.
Frammartino’s mise en scène and camerawork is adaptable according to the needs of his narrative. At one moment we have a close-up of the old man’s face as an ant crawls across it. At other times the camera is high above the village watching everything down below in VLS (very long shot). In a truly stunning sequence, all in VLS, we see an Easter procession come out of the village and progress down the road, encountering the goatherd’s dog on the way in an elaborate comic playlet that could have come from silent cinema or in more recent times from an Elia Suleiman film.
Le quattro volte is stunningly beautiful and a joy to experience, though I should warn those (like me) who are perhaps too sentimental that there is a very sad moment in the film. The film is scheduled to play at a few venues in the US in the next couple of months. In the UK it has been picked up by New Wave Films for release on May 27. I hope it turns out to be a ‘slow-burner’ – like the charcoal. It’s already one of my films of the year.