What a pleasure to welcome a true original. Here’s a wonderful film about life, the universe and everything. It’s captivating, touching, wryly humorous, mysterious, intriguing and uplifting. It’s set in rural Calabria in the depths of Italy, there’s no dialogue and it stars an old man, the world’s cleverest collie, lots of goats, a tree and… a pile of charcoal. True, this sounds suspiciously like a piss-take on arthouse pretentiousness – but you’ll just have to trust us: the charcoal really is key.
Not that this is immediately apparent from the get-go, since writer-director Michelangelo Frammartino only gradually unfurls his secrets. It starts with peasants enigmatically bashing a huge smouldering pile of ash, the thump-thump laid over the plain white-on-black title card like a heartbeat. The film’s original title Le Quattro Volte translates as The Four Times, maybe even The Four Turns, so we’re left to ponder on that. Cut to an elderly goatherd who spends his time with his flock up on the hills, is clearly not in the best of health and is treating himself with a solution of what turns out to be dust swept from the floor of the local church. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust then? Certainly, the film’s not short on images of regeneration and renewal, as the small hilltop community’s Easter festival brings the cast of a Passion Play, we see a baby goat coming into this world and taking its first hesitant steps… and then there’s the tree – and the charcoal, of course…
Where exactly is all this going? Well, there’s not a conventional narrative as such but the Four Turns allusion does make sense as the focus moves from man to animal to vegetable to mineral, the different elements combining to make the totality of the movie – just as they make the totality of everything else in this world, Frammartino seems to be reminding us.
Explaining it makes it sound aridly abstract but watching it is pure delight, since the camera captures baby animals at play, the aforementioned collie strutting its stuff in a mind-boggling extended set-piece, the passing clouds and a tree persevering through winter, all shot in a way which is jolly, entrancingly beautiful and utterly heart-rending (nature is harsh, after all) from moment to moment. Naturally, as a viewer, you try to impose an interpretation on everything but that seems to be the very point, since images of the Easter story – and indeed a more ancient folk festival seen later in the film – seem to hint at mankind’s need for an overriding ‘story’ explaining our place in the universe.
It’s meditative and thought-provoking yet hardly a difficult film, even if it’s not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen. For some there’ll be reminders of Kiarostami or Gideon Koppel’s lovely Sleep Furiously. Perhaps even Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. But no prior cinephile knowledge is required to get the most out of this beguiling and unique piece of cinema. Just an open mind. And an open heart.
From Time Out London
Dir Michelangelo Frammartino, category I, 89 mins, limited release starting Aug 18