Eternal Complexities of the Very Simple Life

Eternal Complexities of the Very Simple Life
New York Times, by A.O Scott


“Le Quattro Volte,” an idiosyncratic and amazing new film by Michelangelo Frammartino, is so full of surprises — nearly every shot contains a revelation, sneaky or overt, cosmic or mundane — that even to describe it is to risk giving something away. At the same time, the nervous reviewer’s convention of posting “spoiler alerts” has rarely seemed so irrelevant. Would I ruin tomorrow by telling you the sun is going to rise? Will your life be spoiled if I divulge that it will end in your death?


Mortality looms large among Mr. Frammartino’s concerns, but there is nothing grim or dispiriting about this film, his second feature. On the contrary, “Le Quattro Volte” packs more life into 88 minutes than movies twice as long, patiently surveying the human and natural landscapes of a remote valley in the southern Italian region of Calabria. In four chapters — the movie’s title can be translated as “The Four Times” — Mr. Frammartino successively chronicles the earthly transit and material transmutation of an old man, a young goat, a tree and a batch of charcoal. Each being or thing is examined with such care and wit that you become engrossed in the moment-to-moment flow of cinematic prose, only at the end grasping the epic scope and lyrical depth of what you have seen, which is more or less all of creation.


Mr. Frammartino has chosen a place where the incursions of modernity are minimal. There are motor vehicles and utility poles, but otherwise human existence seems to follow an ancient pattern. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, that sense of antiquity gives the film its almost jarring freshness, its uncanny sense of discovery.


There is no dialogue, oral discourse being irrelevant to Mr. Frammartino’s concerns. You hear murmurs of human speech, but they are unintelligible and not translated by subtitles. Nor are the barking of a dog, the bleating of goats or the wind sighing in the branches of the gigantic pine that is the film’s totem and tragic hero. And yet, in spite of the director’s observant naturalism and indifference to the usual expectations of plot, character and performance, “Le Quattro Volte” is not a documentary.


It has nothing urgent to say about the social conditions in rural Italy, about environmental conditions or peasant customs, even as it sheds interesting light on all of those matters. You can learn something about folk remedies, superstitions and agricultural practices, about how residents of the valley gather snails, treat respiratory ailments and manufacture fuel to heat their homes and cook their food. And this information is conveyed with a clarity and directness that mask Mr. Frammartino’s extraordinary formal sophistication. Using the sweeping perspectives afforded by the precipitously hilly terrain, he composes frames with the skill of a painter and the wit of a silent-film maestro.


Perhaps the most sustained, dramatic (and hilarious) example is a sequence involving a truck, a dog and the inevitable goats, whose physical properties and animal natures combine in a complicated, elegantly staged accident. The operations of cause and effect are as airtight as the outcome is absurd, as if the laws of the universe were rigged for comic effect. And Mr. Frammartino observes and manipulates them as deftly — and as rigorously — as Buster Keaton did in “The General,” the most Newtonian of his farces.


Humor — generated by incongruities of scale, the workings of chance and the intrinsic preposterousness of goats, snails and people — amounts almost to a philosophical stratagem, a way of exploring how the world works and how it looks. What is perhaps most remarkable about “Le Quattro Volte” is that it is at once completely accessible and endlessly mysterious.


If you pay attention, you see what is going on and grasp the connections between the different things you see, none of which are terribly unfamiliar. But there is something startling, even shocking, about the angle of vision Mr. Frammartino imposes by juxtaposing apparently disparate elements and lingering on what seem at first to be insignificant details. You have never seen anything like this movie, even though what it shows you has been there all along.