Michelangelo Frammartino’s first feature, ‘Il Dono‘ seems like a dry run for his arthouse hit, ‘Le Quattro Volte‘. It’s not only that he’s exercising the same muscles – the static camera, the placid gaze, the wordless exposition; we also have the same shrivelled old man protagonist, the same interest in mammals (see below), and, yes, that’s the same Calabrian village.
The film had some success on the festival circuit, but little to no distribution. It’s flawed. The quality of the cinematography – so important in ‘Le Quattro Volte’ – is inconsistent. The rich texture of the light inside the old man’s cabin is not matched by the banality of the other interiors. In interviews, Frammartino has talked about the camera’s ability to perceive the essence of things. This alchemy does not occur in ‘Il Dono’. Too often the intensity is absent from the frame, as if he knew what should happen, what he wanted to happen, but didn’t quite know whether it had.
(The budget was tiny and time must have been short, while ‘Quattro Volte’ was shot over a period of five years. It was not helped by being broadcast in 4:3 – could this really have been the shooting ratio?)
The plot is too complex for the style, I think, too contrived.
When his dog breathes its last, an old peasant farmer (the director’s grandfather?) gets some local youths to bury it for him. One of the youths leaves his phone and a photocopied amateur pornographic picture behind. The sight of this picture makes the old man’s sap rise and he sets out for one last (quiet) hurrah. Meanwhile, a dim village lass trades sexual favours for lifts home to the hilltop village. Her path and that of the old man slowly wind around each other.
There are echoes of Kiarostami, including a classic winding-road landscape, and also of the Lithuanian maestro, Sarunas Bartas, the most resolute exponent of the wordless.
‘Il Dono‘ makes you appreciate the achievement that ‘Le Quattro Volte‘ represents and it reminds you that these achievements do not materialize spontaneously, out of nowhere. They are the result of trial and error, of practice, of devotion. And of time.
Something all those who sniff at these flawed first features and gripe about the awarding of (very small) grants to their makers should remember: great work takes time and money buys you time.
‘Il Dono’ is available on the internet somewhere, as a rip from a broadcast on Italy’s Rai Tre (see above) – no subtitles, no significant dialogue.