‘There’s no such thing as coincidence.’ Well, maybe not if you’re a culture commentator grasping at the zeitgeist, or merely an arts journalist looking for a common thread to tie your article together. So what then do we make of the mysterious coincidence of two films about reincarnation surfacing in the same year?
Nothing, except, judging by the quality of the two, it does seem to make great cinema.
I’ve already written about the pleasures of Apichatpong’s ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives‘ and now we have Michelangelo Frammartino’s ‘Le Quattro Volte,’ a work whose subtle structures and stubborn faith in the ability of the camera to capture the essence of things repays – or requires – repeat viewing.
At first glance, you might take Frammartino’s film for a kind of ethnographical documentary, as it observes the rhythms of life around an old hilltop village in Calabria, Italy, with a painterly eye, until the on-screen expiration of its apparent protagonist, a taciturn shepherd with a bad cough, betrays its discreet fictional modulations. Something else is going on, something elusive, something – let’s face it – poetic. As one protagonist dies, the next – a goat – is born, and so it continues: the bleeting kid getting lost and finding its way to the base of a majestic fir, which is then felled and dragged to a nearby village to form the centrepiece of an annual festival; once the festival is over the tree is chopped and fed into the clamp of local charcoal burners. These are ‘le quattro volte’: four episodes presenting four incarnations of one soul: the old shepherd, kid goat, fir tree, and a sack of charcoal.
Frammartino’s vision of our cosmic interconnectedness is resolutely material, rooted in the substance of this world – none of the ghost monkeys, forlorn princesses, or anthropomorphic carp, we find in ‘Uncle Boonmee‘, nothing so exotic or supernatural. Here man exists on the same plane as the animal, the vegetable, and the mineral. We are carbon. There’s no real dialogue, the few utterances which occur are not privileged in the sound mix; the costumes of the shepherd, the charcoal burners, and others are similarly designed to make the people blend into their environment. Man’s control over this environment is evidenced and also undermined and this is a source of comedy – comedy in the spirit of Jacques Tati’s wordless orchestrations: the old shepherd defeated by a saucepan of snails, the kid goat popping up from a ditch with perfect comic-timing, and a soon-to-be-celebrated continuous sequence in which a dog disrupts a re-enactment of the Passion.
There is a touch of tourism about the enterprise: lovely folk-pastoral compositions of medieval walled villages, untouched ‘ancient’ landscapes, quaint festivals, but let’s not be ungrateful. The film is a triumph of patience (it took five years to shoot), animal wrangling, and it has to be said, film financing. (That really did have to be said.)
Le Quattro Volte will be released in selected cinemas in the US from March 30th, but you’ll have to wait until the end of May before you can catch this tricky old goat in the UK.
a shorter version of this review was published in the Mexican web-magazine, enfilme