Le Quattro Volte
An old man, a goat, a tree, and the cycles of village life
The main characters in “Le Quattro Volte’’ are a goatherd, a goat, and a tree. The goatherd dies, the goat is born, the tree is cut down and made into charcoal. There, I’ve just told you all of the plot and none of what happens in Michelangelo Frammartino’s hypnotic, comic, cosmic tone poem about the turning wheels of life on Earth. The setting is a tiny village in Calabria, in southern Italy, during the course of one year, but the specific time and place serve as a fractal for a larger picture, and a picture beyond that, and a picture beyond that — as macro as you want to get.
There’s no dialogue or musical score; instead, the sounds of nature and the distant murmur of village life serve as the film’s soundtrack. Frammartino and his cameraman, Andrea Locatelli, prefer long, gracious takes that stand far back from the action and are packed with details; you have to bring your own zoom. The effect is like standing in front of a painting by Bruegel — I kept thinking of “The Fall of Icarus’’ with its drowning hero off in one corner of the canvas — and letting the scope widen and narrow as you will. Few movies are this patient with us, even if not enough moviegoers will be as patient with it. Their loss.
The drowning man in “Le Quattro Volte’’ is that goatherd (Giuseppe Fuda), who seems as old and knobby as the hills around him, if not as fiercely beautiful. He stumps along after his flock every day, his dog torn between tending to the goats and the man, and he has a nasty cough he eases with a dusty medicinal powder. It turns out to be actual dust, swept up from the local church. People here are quite literally of the earth.
The sequence that commemorates the old man’s passing is something like a miracle, an extended shot from high above the road running outside his house. The camera slowly pivots back and forth to take in elemental dramas, comedies, and calamities: a religious procession, a child daunted by a barking dog, an automobile mishap that releases the goats and perhaps the goatherd’s soul. The shot goes on for eight minutes and for all I know it’s going on still, but it doesn’t feel nearly long enough to capture all it wants to hold.
The goatherd dies, the goat is born; are they one and the same? Is this karma or transmigration or resurrection, a white-coated newborn emerging after the village Passion Play is over? Frammartino watches without saying, letting the larger cycles of regeneration and decay do the talking. The baby goat eventually has its own Golgotha of sorts, as does the tall pine tree that shelters it during a storm, as do the men who turn the tree into kindling that becomes a pyramid that becomes a charcoal pit, the rhythms of the ritual going back generations and forward, too.
This is the director’s second film (his first, 2003’s “The Gift,’’ wasn’t released in the United States), but he already has the confidence of a seasoned artist, and he knows exactly what he’s after: the strange in the ordinary, the eternal in the everyday. There’s humor in “Le Quattro Volte,’’ and then a deep, abiding sadness, and beyond that a larger, more graceful comedy that extends to the horizons. In an early scene, the goatherd sits at a table that you realize with a shock is moving, the snails that blanket its surface milling about at a speed almost too slow to register. The key word is “almost.’’ Frammartino suggests we’ll see everything move if we just look long enough.