A story of anarchic goats, lively spiritual celebrations and reincarnation, Michaelangelo Frammartino's "Le Quattro Volte" (which won the Europa Cinemas Label in Cannes's Directors' Fortnight) has a heavy philosophical load. Nevertheless, this painstakingly constructed, quasi-documentary about a shepherd and the flock where he's eventually reborn maintains an unexpectedly playful sensibility on its own terms.
The story of sorts takes place in the quaint area of Italy's Calabria province, where the elderly shepherd (Giuseppe Fuda) goes about his quiet existence while his impending death looms. Frammartino slowly brings us into the world, following the shepherd on his routine until his death somewhere around the end of the first act.
Then, a revelation: The director positions a camera overlooking the goats' holding pen and watches a series of increasingly strange events gradually develop. The result is one of the most fascinating long takes ever put on screen. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a slapstick punchline as the goats run wild across the town, eventually invading their shepherd's home as he breathes his final breath. When he finally does die, the lunacy comes down to Earth as fast as it arrived.
But things quickly turn cosmic. The shepherd's body is placed in a tomb, the movie cuts to black, the sound of a heartbeat slips onto the soundtrack and suddenly a shot of sheep birth fills the frame. The not-so-subtle reincarnation, however, leads to a stream of subtle moments. Baby sheep wander around the farm and play together as if they were a pack of preschoolers. They then embark on a lengthy voyage through the wilderness that culminates with one of them getting separated from the pack. You'll laugh, you'll cry, or at least just go "aww" a few times, because "Le Quattro Volte" is cinema at its most primal, yet simultaneously contains a wealth of ideas.
Frammartino keeps the material engaging simply by aiming the camera at his subjects and letting the material organically emerge -- rather than enforcing the supernatural element with overstatement. The final equation has a Zen quality to it, as Frammartino cycles through a quartet of mini-stories that find new characters in increasingly unlikely places: First man, then sheep, followed by the dead of winter and eventually a Good Friday celebration. In the closing sequence, a rising fume becomes the real star of the show. Given its grandiose dimensions, it speaks to Frammartino's humility that he allows the entire concept to go up in smoke and let the visuals complete the cycle of life.
criticWIRE grade: A-
This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. "Le Quattro Volte" opens in limited release this Wednesday, March 30.