Le Quattro Volte
On the hills of Calabria lives an old goatherd. The sun shines through a filtered sky. Goats trod about in the same lines they have marched for thousands of years, quietly bleating, and tinkling their bells. The old man’s face is masked by the emotional crevasses that mark a life of quiet piety and comfortingly desperate regularity. He regularly visits the local church, where a kindly Rubenesque woman hands him a package of dust she has swept from the church floor. Calabria is a town known for its charcoal. It is a smoky town, so the floors are often dusty with unknowable minerals. The old man mixes the ash with water and drinks it before bed.
The old man dies. A goat is born. The goat vanishes. A tree is cut down. The tree is involved in a fun local celebration. Then it is burned. Then it turns to charcoal.
It’s hard to describe just how fresh and bracing Michelangelo Frammartino’s “Le Quattro Volte” (“The Four Parts”) really is. It’s difficult to convey the quiet, blissed-out feeling I got while watching it. I cannot really convey how a film with no dialogue and no music, which spends most of its time looking at goats and trees, can be so ecstatically profound and so peacefully fascinating. “Le Quattro Volte” may be one of the best films of the year.
The film is shot in a documentary style. The camera rarely moves, and little is orchestrated. There is a funny moment with a local dog that must have been choreographed (how would a dog know to move a truck?), but the rest seems to have happened almost entirely by accident. And yet, the movement of the film, and the subtle transmigratory narrative, is never out of sight. We see a goat being born on camera, and how is tentatively, coated in afterbirth, and blind to the new light, stands and greats the world with a plaintive bleat. This couldn’t have possibly been scripted, but every second feels like it was intentional. There is something miraculous going on here. It’s like a gentle, amusing afternoon of peoplewatching in a public place, casually forming silly stories to go with the oddballs who pass by, but instead of the human populace, you are looking at the world in general, and the movement of the human soul in particular.
This is clearly a film about death and transmigration. We start with an old man, drinking ashes and almost mechanically playacting the final days of his life. On the day when he misses his odd ash-drinking ritual, he dies. The film then focuses on the baby goat, and it might be implied that the man has been reborn. More than that, though, I think “Le Quattro Volte” seem keen on exposing the way our souls occupy space in the universe, and the way death occupies space in our minds. The goat wanders into the woods. Its fate is unclear. We then shift our focus to a tree. The tree is cut down and used for a party. After the party, the tree is moved to a charcoal-making facility on the edge of town, and we see the complicated process used to make charcoal. The wood is burned, its smoke floats up into the air, its ashes settle on the floors of the churches. The charcoal is used to cook food.
From man, to animal, to vegetable, to mineral. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
But I don’t want this to sound like an insufferable hippie look at new age rigmarole. In addition to being a calming film, you will be struck at how funny it is. The peoplewatching simile above extends into a comparison to the films of Jacques Tati. The foibles of the universe are not incidental; they are amusing asides, there to be viewed and enjoyed and giggled at. If Jacques Tati was a Buddhist, he would have possibly made a film like “Le Quattro Volte.”
There are pleasures in this film that I find difficult to describe, but the film never feels oblique or difficult. It’s a film that is making films in ways I haven’t seen before, and it’s bracing and wonderful. It will make you think about death, and smile. How many films can do that?