by Allan Fish
(Italy/Switzerland 2010 88m) DVD1/2
Dust to dust
p Philippe Bober, Elda Guidinetti, Marta Donzelli, Gabriella Manfré, Susanne Marian, Andres Pfäffli, Gregorio Paenessa d/w Michelangelo Frammartino ph Andrea Locatelli ed Benni Atria, Maurizio Grilli m Paolo Benvenuti art Matthew Broussard
Giuseppe Fuda, Bruno Timpano, Nazareno Timpano,
Of all films of the 21st century I have had cause to write about, there is none that has filled me with more trepidation than Michelangelo Frammartino’s truly extraordinary Le Quattro Volte. After all, my role is one of converter in chief, of trying to make the reader want to seek out the film, a minority film at best, and yet any description of what takes place cannot help but send the reader into a mild coma.
We’re in a remote Calabrian village perched high on a citadel, and in essence we follow the last days of an old goatherd. We see that he’s frail; he’s coughing repeatedly and is seen taking something in his water before he goes off to sleep in his truly Spartan bedroom. On his rounds, we see him go to the local church where an old woman tears half a page out of a magazine and folds up some dirt from the church floor into it. It transpires that he’s using this to put into his water as a sort of immersion. Needless to say it does no good, and he’s found dead one morning and is taken away for burial.
What perhaps surprises here is that the old man dies barely half way through and from this point there is no human protagonist at all. One of his goats gives birth, the kid literally plopping out of its mother and seen trying to take its first steps and take its first feed. We see it getting used to being around other kids while their parents are taken to graze on the mountains, until it finally is allowed out with them. On its first day out the goat gets itself positioned in a sort of trench which, while it could extricate itself quite easily, it cries out to its mother and the mother doesn’t hear or doesn’t return. We last see the kid huddling up against a tree on the mountainside as the camera fades to black. Even now this isn’t the end, there’s another act to come, and in many ways this plays like a nature play. Man is seen as no more important, indeed less important, than the animals around him. The camera largely stays still and allows its characters to move within the frame, but for one or two exceptions. The biggest of these takes place in a sequence that becomes one of the funniest scenes you will see in modern cinema but which on the page would not raise so much as a smirk. A camera is perched high above a goat pen and we see a truck pull up. Out of the truck three Roman soldiers emerge looking like they have returned from the world’s longest ever stag do, closely followed by a woman dressed up like she’s an extra in Pasolini or Rossellini’s Christ film, and it becomes clear that a sort of passion play is taking place, in which villagers enact the roles of the Romans, Christ and the thieves, and they are taken to a nearby hill to be nailed up in the accepted manner. The man playing Christ – assuming he is playing him and that he’s not really going to be nailed up – literally drags his own cross as the long procession is followed by the camera. The camera then turns back to its position above the pen to see a dog – that of the old man – pestering a latecomer to the parade, but as he runs off to catch up we see the dog pull out the rock that is holding the truck in place, which proceeds to run back and crash into the goat pen, leaving the goats to merrily make their way out onto the street and up into the village. It’s in following these goats into the village we first become aware of the old man’s passing.
It’s details like this that help to contribute to what becomes like a requiem for innocence lost, for a mankind that has, by and large, long since lost its connection to nature. In doing so, humour alternates with inherent sadness and a sense of poetic beauty all the rarer in modern times. That Frammartino does this purely through visuals and noises, without a single word of dialogue, only adds to the cumulative effect. It’s little wonder it’s been seen as a religious experience by some critics; even an agnostic would have to concede that it’s one of the most spiritual films of recent times.