Anybody who has found themselves occasionally gazing up into the heavens and wondering about life, death, their existence on this world and what it all means will be glad to hear that Michelangelo Frammartino’s disarming Italian film also ponders the big questions, in its own idiosyncratic and deliberate fashion, and he’s come up with an answer for you: it’s all about charcoal. Well, charcoal and goats. Charcoal, goats, reincarnation and ritual. Some combination of those…
Looking at first like an austere observational documentary about life in an isolated Calabrian village, Le Quattro Volte establishes the sights and sounds and repetitive rhythms of everyday life for an ageing herdsman guiding his goats out to pasture and back again until he falls ill (and there’s a message here for anybody who’s putting their trust in Catholic medicine). The life of one of the newborn kids that would have been under his care takes centre stage for a while, until the focus shifts again. We are made to consider the connections between everything on screen, a tree, a dog, a truck, the animate and inanimate, animal and vegetable, all assume their own importance in a wordless tale told through composed, resonant images and ambient sound.
If all of this sounds too much like hard work, Frammartino assuredly does not make it so; he understands that if you’re going to use long takes, make them good-looking, eventful or funny. When he tells the kid’s story, he shoots from its eye level, and immerses you in its world so completely that when the poor little bleeder gets left behind by the herd, it’s deeply distressing. He manages to hold your interest in the fate of a tree, the processes of rural life, odd rituals, domestic details and strange bits of church and village business that must have been taking place here for decades and centuries.
Le Quattro Volte‘s ace card, however, is its animal cast. Look no further for hot goat-on-goat action: this is by some distance the best goat-related art-house feature film I’ve ever seen. They are fantastically entertaining, without ever being anthropomorphised or sentimentalised à la March of the Penguins. They take over the screen, clambering over everything, curious and tottering and playful. The film’s highlight is a jaw-dropping single-take shot that creates beautifully orchestrated comedy chaos out of the herd, a badly parked truck, an Easter crucifixion parade and a dog that deserves to win a goddamn Oscar if there’s any justice in this world. The film definitely loses something when its focus moves on, but remains engaging on some level. I’m not sure how profound it all is, in the end, or how much Frammartino has played with his material to make the connections he does. But for 88 minutes le Quattro Volte weaves a curious spell, like a live action Sylvain Chomet animation, a bucolic meander through the mysteries of life and death.