There is no objectivity in film criticism, so let’s be honest; we all have, for whatever reasons, our own drivers and motivations, genres and styles that we find to be more meaningful and effective than others, our own peccadillos and pet peeves. In the end, despite what we claim to be the truth about movies, our understanding of that truth is constructed within us by innumerable inarticulable forces that are built upon the depth of understanding of film history and language, yes, but also who we are. For me, there are some simple things I know about myself which, I will openly admit, shape my feelings toward a film in one direction or another. I love the essay film (Chris Marker all the way, baby!) because it seems to mirror my brain, the way I think about images and politics and time and history. And as I confessed in my recent review of Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, I deplore films that sexualize or otherwise revel in human suffering; despite the craft involved in creating these movies, I am inclined to loathe films that glorify suffering and violence without an “objective” ability to deal with them on purely cinematic terms. I know who I am and I freely admit it; you can see this as a shortcoming, I guess, but I am supremely comfortable in my limitations. Honesty is the best policy, I think.
So, when I read the description of Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, I knew that, walking in the theater, there was a strong chance I would love it. I was right. The film is set in a small town in the Calabrian region of Italy, where a goatherd spends his days caring for his flock while battling a respiratory illness. He treats his sickness with a glass full of water and dust, which has been swept up from the floor of his local church and delivered in a folded piece of paper (torn from a fashion magazine.) And so, the days go by; into the hills with the goats, a glass of dusty water at night, until Good Friday arrives and the town prepares for a celebratory re-staging of the crucifixion of Jesus. The unveiling of what happens next is such an amazing, delightful pleasure that I am loathe to spoil it, but needless to say, Frammartino walks the line between fictional representation and a patient documentation of the way in which life begets life begets life. This movie is almost unbelievable in its ability to showcase the power of nature, especially the centerpiece sequence that closes the opening section of the film which, by observing the literal intersection of animals, humans, machines and the pageantry of religious belief, all from an angle high above the proceedings that provides full view of the chaos that ensues, allows the audience to simply believe that somehow, someway, Frammartino has harnessed the power of nature and circumstance, bending it all in service of his film. How many takes does it require to capture that?
Le Quattro Volte
This only speaks to the mastery on display in this nearly dialogue-free film; Frammartino uses sound in a brilliant way, allowing long takes to sing with the music of the life inhabiting the frame. Despite the incessant clanging of the goats’ bells or the bleating of a lost kid in search of his herd or the rhythmic digging and patting of shovels on a charcoal mound, the sound in Le Quattro Volte instantly focuses your attention on the image, never allowing the scenes to drift into pure contemplation. Instead, Frammartino deploys a unified set of cinematic tools in the service of his visual poetry. In its own quiet way, Le Quattro Volte is among the finest examples of cinematic storytelling I can think of and, let’s be honest, a massive step in the right direction for Italian cinema. The film uses the stillness of the camera to provide a frame for the full vitality of life without providing commentary or ironic detachment from the action, but it also channels that vitality into a narrative fiction that seems completely real. Of course, it was Italy that gave us our popular understanding of cinematic neo-realism to begin with, so it should come as no surprise that an Italian director should bring us something that at once feels so of the present and simultaneously ancient and eternal. Still, it was impossible for me to feel anything but a thrill as the movie unfolded; I was completely smitten with it, carried away by the images, by the commitment to simple camera moves and long, generous takes, to the feeling the film inspired in me that cinema, like all great art, can deliver a transcendent emotional experience of the world. As I expected it would, Le Quattro Volte delivered me to the border between reality and narrative, between fiction and life, a place I love, a place where only the movies can take me.