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Film Review

Le Quattro Volte

Michelangelo Frammartino, an Italian director (b 1968) with only one other feature film to his credit, has produced a film masterpiece. I have rarely seen a more beautiful, haunting, and moving film than "Le Quattro Volte", which looks at the cycles of life in a small Calabrian hill town. The film opens with the sounds of rhythmic thumping, then white smoke, which soon reveals a large domed structure from which smoke emerges from many vent holes. It is a log structure, covered with charcoal, that is used to make charcoal in southern Italy. Then the scene abruptly shifts to grassy mountains, with an old grizzled goatherd, his herd of shaggy goats, and his dog. The herd moves slowly, grazing, while the dog guards and herds the goats. The theater fills with sound: the cries of the goats, their bells, the barking of the dog, the constant coughing of the herder, a rooster from a distant farm, and the wind, but no human voices. The dog returns often to the goatherd who sits under a large tree. At the end of the day, the goats are moved back to their pen in a tiny hill town. The goatherd milks one, and takes the milk to the church, where he exchanges their empty bottle for a filled one. In return, the caretaker gives him a small packet of sweepings from the church floor, which he mixes and drinks each night before going to bed in his small austere room.

The next morning the goats go back to their mountain pastures, with that wonderful symphony of baas, bells, and barking. While in the pastures, we see the goatherd picking up objects and putting them in a sack. We can't see what they are. When he returns to his room that night, he puts them into pan with a lid weighted down by a stone, on a table. When he returns the next day, we see the lid off the pan, and the table a moving mass of snails. But that night he has misplaced his packet of church floor sweepings, and goes to bed fitfully. The next morning a pageant is taking place next to his goat pen, which includes Roman soldiers, a man dressed as Christ, carrying a large cross, and various townspeople. The goatherd's dog guards his territory, until chased off by one of the soldiers. Then a strange thing happens, which I will not describe, but the goats are released, and some wander into the goatherd's room. They gather, seemingly curious, around his bed. He has died, and we see his procession to the cemetery, led by the village priest.

The film shifts to a goat giving birth. The baby tumbles out, and struggles for a while to get on his feet, while the mother cleans him by licking. The scene is lovely and memorable, celebrating new life, and suggesting the goatherd's spirit being reborn. Weeks pass as the baby goat gets bigger and begins to challenge the other kids. The kids are not allowed to follow the herd to the pastures until they reach a certain size. But finally our boy follows the herd, and rests beneath a large solitary evergreen. Again, I have omitted events that are crucial, which begins another chapter of the film.

We see the tree through several seasons. Then the camera focuses on the top of the tree, and we hear the sound of human voices, then a chain saw, and finally the tree crashes down. People are not shown until the tree emerges from the forest, stripped of its bark, and being dragged into the town by all the men. It is set up in the town square as a sort of pagan rite, then pulled down. And finally ends up in sections at the charcoal makers' site, where we see men building the enormous charcoal kilns seen at the beginning. The last scenes show the charcoal truck, going by the abandoned goat pen, delivering the bagged charcoal to the villagers. Smoke emerges from the chimney, drifts into the forest, and thus a cycle of life is completed.

Le Quattro Volte, which means four times or phases, refers to a belief by Pythagoras that is almost Buddhist in concept, the rebirth of the spirit. Pythagoras founded an influential school in the fifth century BC in southern Italy, so the film may be intended as an homage. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Frammartino shoots nearly all his scenes with a fixed camera, at a distance. There are good closeups, but the soul of the film is observation from a distance. Frammartino says he was influenced by the painter, Bruegel, and some scenes in the village are clearly reminiscent of village life in Bruegel's paintings. The village scenes were filmed in the town of Serra San Bruno, in Calabria, a poor region of Italy, in the toe of the Italian "boot". No professional actors were used other than the dog. Sound is also a glory of this film. Both the cinematography and the sound recall two recent films, "Sweetgrass" and "Silent Light". Although Frammartino looks at some of the same questions as Malick in "The Tree of Life", it is the opposite in style and drama, both equally beautiful. "Le Quattro Volte" is as much documentary as a spiritual drama. It is short (88 min) but lyric and rich. I loved the film; it is a gem. Should be seen on the big screen. Playing at the Lumiere this week and next.

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