Michaelangelo Frammartino was 700 meters deep inside the Bifurto Abyss, a vast cave in southern Italy, when a sudden flood trapped him there. The filmmaker and amateur speleologist, who was in the process of shooting his new movie “Il Buco,” wasn’t too worried.
“Everything was under control,” he said in a recent interview over Zoom. “We could have just waited until the end of the flooding but the media asked for a real-time rescue. We arrived outside the cave and it was strange.” He felt that the TV reporters embellished the rescue to play up a nonexistent drama, which struck an ironic contrast with the immersive cinematic experience he was constructing down below. “Outside the cave, there was this fiction that was far less ordinary and calm than the one we were trying to tell,” he said.
Frammartino doesn’t make movies so much as intangible immersions: In 2010, his acclaimed “Le Quattro Volte” constructed the gradual transition of the soul through humans, goats, and a fir tree, resulting in a slow-burn cinematic tapestry loaded with spiritual connotations in piecemeal. “Il Buco” marks his first feature in over a decade, and it’s easy to see why. The Italian director assembles such an intricate pattern of sights and sounds that they seem as if they exist in a self-contained universe, and in this case, he fully immersed himself in one.
Frammartino first come across the Bifurto Abyss while shooting “Le Quattro Volte,” and after his initial plan to make a movie about a “tree cult” fell apart, he returned to the cavernous setting with a remarkable conceit steeped in history yet timely at the same time. “Il Buco” freely adapts the real-life expedition by a team of speleologists in the 1960s who reached the bottom of the cave then considered the third deepest on the planet.
But Frammartino doesn’t “adapt” that journey so much as he absorbs its DNA, with a nearly wordless, painterly assemblage of visuals that track the adventurers as they wander deeper into the cave. As the filmmaker pairs these sequences with the observations of a nearby shepherd, “Il Buco” coalesces into a wondrous meditation on the fundamental curiosity to grasp the unknowable depths of the natural world.
“We wanted to explore life beyond the boundaries, what we cannot see,” said Frammartino, who spent long periods of time with co-writer Giovanna Giuliani roaming around the cave and sketching out ideas for scenes and observations. “When you go into a cave, there is a relationship between and the unknown. In a time when Google Street has reached every corner of the world, the only places that are unknown are the caves.”
That sort of entrancing, mystical concept is at the center of Frammartino’s work, which begs for patient viewers and provides the ultimate panacea to a fast-paced existence. It also demands a theatrical presentation, and not only because it was mixed in Dolby Atmos. “In order to enjoy this film, you must be in full darkness,” he said. “The speleologists are in the cave; the audience is in the theater. The movie needs to be watched by a group of people in the right place.”
Venice Film Festival
Frammartino put the project together with a laundry list of supporters that ranged from the Calabria Film Commission to the Italian Ministry for Culture, Cinereach, and Arte France. Having developed speleology as a hobby, he worked to train sound technicians and found a cameraman proficient in the craft in order to shoot in the murky confines of his main backdrop.
“It took quite a long time to prepare,” he said. He was gripped by the relationship between the speleologists and shepherds. “It was necessary to know this world and its people,” he said. “They live together, share food, information.” He also grasped a profound metaphor around the challenges of speleology. “There is no shame in the defeat that speleologists always experience,” he said. “Sometimes you’re in a cave where you turn a corner and are confronted with the end.”
That observation surfaces in the movie during a key moment, marking one of the few visual punchlines — another involves a wayward soccer ball careening down the black void from above — in a movie that oscillates from pure non-narrative observation to sudden flashes of cosmic wonder.
A brief introduction contextualizes the setting within the vastly different efforts to industrialize the country’s cities during the economic boom of the era. News footage recounts the construction of a large skyscraper, a kind of metropolitan Tower of Babel that Frammartino views as a cold, inhuman undertaking at odds with the natural desire to remain on terra firma. “It was an era in which positive verticality took place,” said Frammartino, who speaks as though his original training as an architect continues to inform his aesthetic. “Italy was looking upwards with this skyscraper as a huge symbol. But speleologists were going the other way.”
He views “Il Buco” as a refutation of the perception that Italy’s financial prosperity from 50 years ago captured the full scope of the country’s experiences; instead, he shows how the country’s rural inhabitants remained as marginalized as ever. “At that time, we started forgetting the difficulties and lack of resources that people experienced after the Second World War,” he said. “The economic boom is a legend, a myth. Yet we keep hoping it will return sometime soon.”
In “Il Buco,” the speleologists wander through the cave and the vast greenery of its surrounding areas as a wizened old shepherd looks on, as do various farm animals. With time, death creeps into the wandering story, as if to acknowledge the fragility of the insular setting. The project allowed Frammartino to grapple with humanity’s relationship to forces much larger than anything they can fully comprehend. “Human beings take their own worlds with them wherever they go, from the known to the unknown,” he said. “It is a nice way of going beyond borders.”
With this project behind him, Frammartino wasn’t sure if he’d spend another decade on his next one. “It is quite difficult for me to trust a new project,” he said. He hasn’t been to a cave in the two years since he finished principal production, but the expedition still haunted him. “You can experience something extraordinary down there,” he said. “I will go back.”
“Il Buco” premieres this week at the Venice Film Festival and next plays NYFF. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.