Originally posted on CriterionCast on December 8th 2011
Ancient Greek mathematician/philosopher Pythagoras theorized that all souls transmigrate into man, animal, vegetable and mineral. It is on this tenet that Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is based. Part minimalist observations, part docudrama; it is a trancelike rumination that shows everything and tells nothing, allowing us to drift in and out of our own ponderous observations. Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release amply captures this meditative wonder.
The first half is occupied by an elderly goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) in an Italian village. He spends his time going about his daily routines. His tasks are revisited using the same camera placements, capturing the repetition in routine. Eventually, the goat herder passes on, beginning a cycle of passage that transfers to the life of a goat, a fir tree and charcoal. Each segment monitors how the subject encounters its daily life and its routines. We follow interactions with the surroundings and how other beings interact with the subject whether it be creation, destruction or a mere encounter.
Le Quattro Volte contains no dialogue, no music, no narration and almost no camera movement. Frammartino emphasizes observation at all times; it is necessary that everything we see must feel like something the camera just happens to be catching. Nothing can feel artificially placed. Nothing can feel staged. It all must flow with a precise stoicism, showing us the matter-of-factness of the life cycle, but capturing the miracle of it through its normality.
The theory of transmigration adds a level of spiritualism to the proceedings. This further shines a light on this idea of the simplicity of existence, lending itself to a greater recognition of the phenomenon of it all that we take for granted. Thankfully, the film never tells us we take this for granted; it is just an understanding that comes through the film implicitly. Didacticism is nowhere to be found, and Le Quattro Volte is all the better for it.
This basic level of existence is emphasized through the film’s depiction of nature. This rural village is surrounded by hilly landscape. Once the goat herder passes, gradual steps are made towards the unfettered natural world. The baby goat still encounters herders and is contained within the village but ends its story abandoned under a tree after losing the herd. The third segment starts out as entrenched in nature as it gets; a fir tree sturdy in its expected territory. The tree is then chopped down; nature is infiltrated and by the end of the film, which depicts how charcoal is made, we are brought full circle.
All things are connected in Le Quattro Volte, but this is no hippie-dippie piece of filmmaking. The film shifts from object to object with a respectful and appropriate fade-out; a visual passing of the baton. The director makes sure never to come off as imposing, placing crucial importance on what we see and how we see it. Most of the film takes on a static fly-on-the-wall position.
What will surprise many is how amusing the film can be. In one of the single best, not to mention funniest, scenes of the year, the birds-eye view camera observes an Easter processional that takes place down a long road. The goats are fenced in on the left, a truck is parked on a hill on the right and a sheepdog nags at the villagers as they continue their ritualistic reenactment. All of the elements are set into place for the events that will unfold before us. The way the camera slowly pans and tracks how it all happens is an example of the type of experience only this film can give. The film constantly surprises with the minute details it catches and how often it can make us smile.
The hushed spatiality of Le Quattro Volte allows us inordinate room to think about the images we see at our leisure. Each person will be drawn to different details or segments. I admit that the first half of the film containing the goat herder did not mesmerize me much. This is entirely preferential and not a knock on the film at all. Rather, it was the goat, the tree and the charcoal that had me entirely within the film’s grip. These segments entranced me and had me floating above the subjects along with the camera, often times not thinking at all but just soaking in the environment. You are free to move in and out of Le Quattro Volte; to engage and not engage and to simply take it all in. It puts all of its stock in this one conceit of transmigration and beautifully observes rather than trying to tell us anything; and by that, it tells us everything.