Sunday, 6 November 2016

Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2011)

Le Quattro Volte begins with fog, which becomes wisps of greenish smoke, wafted by the breeze around a charcoal mound. We hear the tug of wind through the stack, see a charcoal burner, tamping the mound with a paddle, the sound, heard from the inside of the stack, transmuted into something very like a heartbeat as the film title shows over a first screen of transitional darkness. We are being born into the film. And then to the green Calabrian hills, the same faint tamping pulsing through the valleys from below as a goatherd's flock is led to higher ground.

Le Quattro Volte is a rare pleasure in that it is a film to listen to as much as it is to watch. I can imagine its four sections – scenes from the life of a goatherd, a kid, a silver fir tree, charcoal, a continual life force flowing through the time of each vessel - being released as four sections of music, with recurrent presences, such as the pool and flow of goat bells with their irregular swaying tick and peal and tinkle punctuated by birdsong or the laboured two-stroke purring of the charcoal burners' truck.

Michelangelo Frammartino’s film began, for him, with the sounds, sights and trades of Calabria, the charcoal burners and shepherds, the annual regional festivities, the material given shape by the writings of Pythagoras, resident in the area in the 6th century BC, and especially the following saying, attributed to him and here paraphrased by Frammartino: ‘Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another. Man is mineral because his skeleton is made of salt; man is also vegetable because his blood flows like sap; he is animal in as much he is endowed with motility and knowledge of the outside world. Finally, man is human because he has the gifts of will and reason. Thus, we must know ourselves four times.’

With such a subject it is appropriate that Frammartino intersects the film’s scenes, elements from one transplanting into the next to move us ever onwards, or back, or around, in a continual interlinked chain of cause and consequence. An example: early on, the herder lets out his goats from their stable, their bells mixing with those of the church, which is where the old man heads next, and where we see dust gently rising and falling in snowy motes in the interior blue-grey light. The cleaner with dustpan and brush is the next person we see as we hear the goatherd's familiar cough, and we join him in the vestry as he waits, attended by statues of saints, for the cleaner to enter, which she does, acknowledging the man’s presence with a slight twist of the head. Their exchange of blessed church dust – the man's night-time medicine, stirred briskly in a glass of water – for a bottle of goat milk takes place, with the much pared pages of a copy of Grazia testament to the length of the couple’s understanding.

In Le Quattro Volte, transitions from one state to another are central. That the goat herder is being readied for his death, and that the vigour of animal life is to take his place, is evident when we see an ant crawling the creviced geography of his face, under his eyes, across the bridge of his nose, across his forehead, as he squats in the grass. And later, when he picks up fallen goat bell in a lane, putting it in his pocket, he sounds like a goat himself as he enters his pinkwashed kitchen, where the snails he had collected the day before have overflowed the confines of the bucket in which they were held. The block he had picked up having proved useless at containing the molluscs beneath the lid, he throws it out of the window onto the road beneath, where the next day it is picked up by a centurion in the Easter procession to chock the back wheel of his truck.

After a rheumy vision of goats surrounding his bed the old man’s breathing stops and we are taken into his resting place, behind the the grate and muffled thump of the stone enclosing his coffin, and in the darkness a heartbeat - and then the slip and jerk of a newborn goat, licked into life by its mother, its legs splayed across the stone and straw of its new life, while the herd looks on to this age-old scene, as the shivery, wobbly-legged goat searches for its mother’s teat.

Soon the sound of the film is the scamper and pad of young goats across the concrete floor of the barn after the flow of their mothers down the wobbling stone steps and out into the hills.

Frammartino talks of his film being ‘an exercise of humility of the eye, to let nature, maybe in the form of a goat, take centre stage instead of humans,’ and this is exactly what happens here, as the scene is given over to the young goats in the stable, their playthings an upturned bath, a breeze block and a broom ready to be knocked noisily to the floor. They play king of the castle, they neck and nibble, scratch and climb, pronk and fart. It is scenes like this, or an earlier notable one in which a dog takes centre stage in a single-take, 8 minute scene, disrupting and guiding the actions of the humans, liberating the goats for their necessary, consoling presence for the old man's death – that makes me think of Jacques Tati’s thoughts on ‘democratic comedy’ - the effacement of a central comic presence and the consequent allowal of the continual background of comic possibilities to take the stage with their disorderly presence.

Frammartino again: ‘This land has taught me to put man’s role into perspective and turn my gaze away from him. Can cinema free itself of the dogma which dictates that human beings should occupy the leading role?’

The young goat, separated from its flock, wanders beneath eucalyptus trees, keening for its mother as once again the fateful pad of the charcoal burner reverberates through the woods. The kid settles beneath a silver fir on the hillside, nestled in its roots as the crickets chirrup in the dusk. Night comes on and again we are inside, in a place of transmutation, in the seep and creak of the tree, next shown in winter, bearing the rustle and brush of snowy winds before, in springtime, an ant crawls the creviced geography of its bark to the sound of birdsong.

Frammartino talks of diverting the viewer’s attention from man to his surroundings, granting the animal, vegetable and mineral realms as much dignity as the human one. I think of this as people heft the fir’s chainsawed trunk down from the hillside; from a distance they recall the goats we have seen spreading through the hills at dusk, or the ants worrying at the sachet of dust dropped from the old man’s pocket. The tree’s arrival in the village square is greeted by a brisk rattle of communal applause that sounds not dissimilar to goat bells. Later, again seen from a distance, a man struggles like an ant to climb the trunk unaided. And later still, after the arrival once more of the charcoal burners’ truck, and the dumb show of greeting and pacing out the cordage of the wood, an ant-truck inches through the winding hill roads with its heavy load, back to the windy bustle and blow of the charcoal yard.

The charcoal stack is packed with the trunk of the ritual tree at its heart. And again we are inside, enclosed by the muffled clunk of lengths of bough and trunk as they are layered around us. The wood smoulders, and to the plunk of stacked wood and the drag of a shovel, a gust of smoky wind issues from the stack holes, then quietly carries up through the beech woods and across the fir-dotted hills.

The films final sounds are the clink and riddle, fritter and smash of shovelled charcoal. Left quiet, and resembling a carbon ossuary, its cooling pinks the air, mixing with birdsong, while the film’s last word (as it were) is given to the rusting chimney cowl, which, much earlier, had turned to acknowledge the old man’s arrival through the narrow streets of his village, and which now breathes the new charcoal’s smoke and turns away from us with a slight creak.

In the end credits, acknowledgement is given – appropriately, in addition to the human participants – to the dog Vuk, to the silver fir cut down for the village festival, to the goats of the village of Caulonia and the charcoal of the Serre Calabresi.

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