By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 20, 2013 at 12:10PM
When entering "Alberi," the installation work by filmmaker Michaelangelo Frammartino currently on display at the MoMA PS1's VW Dome in Queens during the Tribeca Film Festival, one experiences the immediate sensations of sound and darkness. Then there's the screen, a hulking, slanted window into the forest-encrusted terrain of a distant world, jutting up at the front of the room and seemingly devouring the audience beneath it.
Inside the geodesic space where the installation takes place, "Alberi" viewers are transported to a remote village in Italy, where locals resurrect a long-forgotten mythological figure by covering themselves in tree branches and wandering the landscape as if the Earth itself has decided to stroll its surface. The beings leave the woods and dance with the villagers as accordion music fills the air -- and then the cycle continues.
Screening on an endless loop at PS1 starting this weekend and running through April 28, "Alberi" is a remarkable sensual experience that draws its spectators into an otherworldly experience simultaneously divorced from the real world while amplifying its subtlest qualities. While unlike anything you've seen before, "Alberi" is hardly an unexpected innovation from the Italian director. In 2010, the director's sophomore feature "Le Quattro Volte" was the discovery of Cannes' Directors Fortnight and eventually landed distribution with Kino Lorber, leading to further acclaim when it reached U.S. shores.
Like "Alberi," Frammartino's earlier movie provided viewers with a deeply meditative experience, almost entirely devoid of dialogue, in which a sheepherder dies and eventually gets reincarnated as the offspring of his sheep. In "Alberi," the connection between man and nature takes a far more literal form, as the men dressing up as trees and roaming about form the entire cyclical narrative, a 28-minute selection of footage that Frammartino has arranged so that viewers can enter the installation at any point and feel wholly immersed in it. The approach was a natural outgrowth of a visceral spectatorship process that the director, a former architect, finds especially attractive.
"For me, there is a strong connection between the space and image," Frammartino said in a conversation with Indiewire at PS1 on Friday a few feet away from the VW Dome, looking relieved after spending five days setting up the installation. "If you don't go out of your house to enter the space, you can't have the experience."
Viewed in that context, "Alberi" delivers the avant garde alternative to IMAX and other big screen experiences engineered to keep the theatrical element of cinema alive. Frammartino sees it in the grand tradition of Georges Melies, the magician-turned-filmmaker working at the turn of the 20th century (and the central character of Martin Scorsese's "Hugo"). "Melies, when he made these incredible things, was working on a connection between theater and images," Frammartino said. "He was filming himself in front of scenery. This was the beginning of cinema -- a very strong connection between the image and the space. With 'Alberi,' there is also that acute connection."
Though Frammartino has designed "Alberi" to wash over viewers rather than provide them with precise meanings, the project was directly inspired by a myth popular in the Basilicata region of Italy where the director shot his footage. There, villagers speak of a tradition associated with the imaginary character Romita, a treelike man who has -- according to Frammartino's notes with the installation -- "rejected the idea of migration and planted his roots in his own land." In the footage, dozens of villagers cover themselves in leaves to celebrate Romita's independence, but Frammartino said that originally the tradition called for only one man to dress up. He just found the image of the tree men so alluring that he couldn't resist multiplying them.
Indeed, from the moment the roaming camera first discovers a humanlike figure among the green terrain to their parade across a magisterial hill, the creatures take on an otherworldly power that might feel more at home in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. Frammartino relishes the opportunity to draw viewers into a world while forcing them to wrestle with its oddities through pure visual finesse.
"I like to use two images at the same time," he said, "like a goat on the table in 'Le Quattro Volte' or the tree in 'Alberi.' It's a tree and it's a man. The viewer is more active with this ambiguity because he can switch between possibilities."
Of course, one can only absorb the installation for so long. While the VW Dome is populated by soft cushions where audiences could spend hours absorbing the experience, eventually the museum has to close. Frammartino hopes to create other versions of "Alberi" that can be experienced in different ways. Plans include a conventional short film made from the existing material that can be screened at festivals as well as a specialized Blu-ray that starts at random parts of the loop each time users put it in their players. Frammartino hopes this will clarify the project's mixed media status. "Usually, people say my movies are more visual art than cinema," he said. "But now they're saying it's more cinema than visual art."
More precisely, it's both things and yet exists outside of them. "Alberi" encourages you to watch for clues as to its precise meaning even though it never demands complex interpretation; the interplay of nature and life speaks on its own terms. Dreamlike and yet curiously familiar, "Alberi" is in a class by itself.