Living la dolce vita in Calabria, Michelangelo Frammartino’s documentary fiction Le Quattro Volte is a naturalist’s reduction of man to matter.
Of Goats And Men by Mark Wilshin
Translated as The Four Times, you may wonder while watching Le Quattro Volte what exactly these times are. But by God, the times are a-changing. Completely dialogue-free, Le Quattro Volte is funny, poetic and profound, based around an observational cycle of narratives, from a Calabrian shepherd tending his goats, to one of his young billies, a majestic white fir tree on Monte Pollino to its final resting place of charcoal and smoke. Following the final moments of these living beings, Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is pitched somewhere between a documentary and fiction, but with its descent through the species and its final fumigation of life, it’s nothing short of poetry.
Set for the most part in the hilltop town of Caulonia, Le Quattro Volte is a celebration of life itself. And stripping man of his cinematic hubris that he is at the centre of all things, the film dedicates its stories to dogs, goats, snails and trees in its gentle celebration of nature and depiction of Calabria’s customs. Following a smoky epilogue of a local charcoal-maker patting down his scarazzo, Frammartino directs our gaze to an unnamed herdsman. He doesn’t speak, only coughs. And it’s hard to tell if the cough is remedied by the holy dust he receives from the church cleaner in exchange for a pint of goat’s milk, or if it does in fact cause it.
A story emerges around life in this Calabrian backwater, at times hidden. As Italian donne receive their charcoal deliveries in the foreground, it’s a while before you notice the herdsman shuffling past in the background. Or he’s obscured, selling his milk behind an open door, only to be revealed once the transaction’s completed. Similarly, Frammartino’s cheeky sensibility tracks back from a close-up of the old man’s face, apparently irked by an ant in a field, to reveal he is in fact taking a shit. It’s a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted humour that lifts Le Quattro Volte out of the ponderous.
In a stand-out scene of clockwork machination, Vuk the dog is shooed by Roman centurions, and then terrorises an altarboy scuttling behind the town’s Good Friday Passion play before unleashing mayhem when he seizes a rock to play with, unleashing a van held on the slope into the goat pen. With goats clambering all over the herdsman’s house, they’re witnesses to his final breath. Perhaps succumbed without his dose of sacred dirt. From death back to birth, we then follow a young billy goat making his first steps in the world. From Frammartino’s footage, you’d think goats are the most innately hilarious creatures in all existence; they spectate pensively the kid’s birth, and the young ones rambunctiously shove each other off an upturned bathtub. Shamelessly anthropomorphised, the young goat, muzzled to prevent it eating, gets lost from its tribe and nestles up to die in the roots of a white fir.
What with its lost sheep and Good Friday death, there’s a very Christian thread running through Le Quattro Volte. Even the magnificent Tree Of Life is chopped down, stripped, hoisted up and strapped with Christmas presents before being unceremoniously hacked apart and turned into charcoal. There’s also something poignantly spiritual about the final smoking chimney, a poetic progression from man in, all its fleshy reality, to wisps of white, pope-elect smoke suggestive of a soul floating to a higher order.
Whether it’s a journey away from sin or a descent into abstract nature, the four times are demarcated with lightless screens of blackness, voids of death which eventually lead back into life and another story. The scarazzi though provide the film’s narrative with a full circle, a smoke ring which embraces all life as it percolates down the mountainside. It’s a textural beauty where the sound design really excels, the tinkle of brittle branches of charcoal, its soft crackle as it burns. Absurd, beautiful, natural Le Quattro Volte is a macroscopic snapshot of life with its carbon cycles, pains and fears. You live, procreate, believe and die, but exit in a puff of smoke.
Le Quattro Volte is released in the UK on 27th May 2011