LE QUATTRO VOLTE (The Four Times) B+
Italy (88 mi) 2010 d: Michelangelo Frammartino
This is cinema of the sublime, a rare instance where it’s near impossible not to be amused and enchanted by a director’s vision and imagination. A few years back there was a festival film called HUKKLE (2002), a near wordless film from Hungary that drew many admirers for its unusual format, basically telling a story with few words. This does the same, only there are no words whatsoever and there’s little, if any, storyline. Instead there’s a series of images shown in a documentary manner, though one wonders if it even fits the documentary format. First and foremost, the film is utterly gorgeous, shot by Andrea Locatelli in Calabria, Italy, easily the most beautiful film seen so far this year where the focus of attention is the verdant green rolling hills where a herd of goats grazes in a natural state of grace. This is Bresson’s Balthazar (1966) without the Sisyphus-like series of human horrors that follows its short lifespan on earth. These goats already live in their own paradise, free from any human interference save for the constant barking of herder dogs and the worn out footsteps of an aging shepherd who has a hard time keeping up anymore, who has to continually stop and rest along the way, where amusingly, and politely, the goats wait for him to sit down before they rush ahead along the narrow pathway through the woods. The goats themselves are natural scene stealers, as these are among the healthiest goats ever to grace the screen and they frolic and freely jump onto anything they can climb, showing a rare exuberance in the wild, where the constant bleating has a calming effect. But it’s the beauty of their environment that holds the key to this film, as that ultimately is the film’s subject. The goats are simply non-professional actors willing to work cheaply, adding their own unadulterated realism to every shot, shown using long, extended takes and natural sound.
As he herds the goats back home where they spend the night in a gated pen, the shepherd visits the church where he picks up a package of dust collected from the floors of the altars, which he places in his water at night as his medicine. Come morning, there is a rooftop shot overlooking the goats laying in their outdoor pen as a truck pulls up and parks nearby, as the occupants disappear and slowly a procession passes down the street, where afterwards a poor girl is penned in by the herder dog that continually prevents her from passing, an amusing game between man and beast that idly passes the time until the girl is finally left unimpeded. The dog is more interested in kicking the rock out from underneath the truck’s tire, causing a near catastrophe in the making. But the camera amazingly swings away in the opposite direction as the viewer can only imagine what happened, an interesting diversion before swinging back and showing a truck that rolled downhill backwards through the goat’s pen, as they are now milling around the street like curious bystanders. This is a particularly humorous sequence as interior shots show goats bounding up the stairs, some standing on tabletops, others just bunched together around the poor shepherd who never made it through the night. As the villagers carry his casket and lay it to rest, one can still hear a heartbeat which is quickly segued by a newborn goat falling out of his mother’s amniotic sac, dropping to the ground where it remains squashed on its knees until it can gather enough strength to stand. This gorgeous white kid goat becomes the focus of the camera’s attention, seen in various stages with other goats, both adult and baby goats, where their interaction couldn’t be more human, as the babies are cleverly mischievous at play and can’t wait for their mothers to return when left alone in a cleanly swept barn all day.
One of the most transcendental shots is following this white kid goat as it passes through the mountainside hills and gullies with the bigger goats, but gets stuck in a dry gulch that the others easily cross, losing contact with the herd. With utter effortlessness, the vulnerability of the goat is exposed by its unanswered bleats, a heartbreaking moment that may be the shot of the film as after wandering aimlessly all day he finally lays to rest at night beside a giant tree. After a quick series of shots that hold the same image affixed during changing seasons, the focus is shifted to the tree, which becomes the subject of the annual Spring Tree Festival. In a visualized pageantry, dozens of villagers are seen climbing and surrounding the tree in an attempt to harvest it, a largely symbolic gesture that signifies the season for harvesting and the gathering of wood for fuel. Later more trees are subsequently reduced to ordinary sized firewood that is charred in a hand built smoker. This ancient ritual is a painstakingly deliberate process of building the hut out of sticks and mud, then slowly packing and drying the mud until it can withstand heat, adding smoke holes for ventilation, transformed into a giant smoker that turns the wood into usable charcoal, which is later distributed throughout the village. This is a beautifully edited, naturalistic, cycle of life film that inventively keeps changing the focus of the film, using plenty of wry humor and exquisite imagery that connects one section to the next, always finding involving footage that shows ageless wisdom and maturity behind the camera. This is extremely enjoyable filmmaking, highly original and compelling throughout. While the cyclical nature is a story in itself, it’s the beauty of the landscapes, the rooftop overviews, and the inventive compositions that continue to delight the viewer, as it’s easy to become transfixed by the near Biblical austerity of a timeless place that continues to exist in the present much as it has for centuries.