With its suggestive changes in point-of-view and cyclical, wordless narrative, Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte might appear to invest in a certain “mysticism” common to art cinema. But in taking as its starting point man’s daily labour, the film is thematically significant and intellectually moving.
Its story – what there is of it – concerns an ailing goatherd in a hilltop village in Calabria who, after tending to his herd each day, retreats to bed every night with a solution of dust made up at the local church, in the assumption that it treats his cough. After misplacing his “medicine” and failing to retrieve a replacement, he dies.
From here, the film assumes the point-of-view of a kid goat, following it in its early stages and into the wider world with its herd. As it gets lost and separated from its herd, the kid finds shelter beneath a hillside tree; it is unclear whether it dies or sleeps. Hereafter, the film becomes a documentary-like sequence of near-hypnotic observation, as it concerns a tree (perhaps the same one under which the goat lay) being felled, shaved, erected as part of a village festival, before being transported and chopped up to be transformed into charcoal.
Le quattro volte has an immediate naturalism to it: its wordlessness stems not from some conscious effort to strain on-screen relationships, but from the solitary nature of its protagonist(s). The film’s complex sound design is fiercely diegetic, unassuming yet deeply (necessarily) rich. Andrea Locatelli’s camera observes action patiently and in detail; returning to various shots throughout, Locatelli’s idiosyncratic angles allow the village to become familiar to us but for changes in the weather.
In this sense, Le quattro volte resembles Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins; like that film, this is in some way a topographical work, the textures of its own imagery drawing attention to the physicality of its subjects. (Incidentally, Frammartino, like Keiller, originally studied architecture.) Indeed, this is a film about life as a process; change is its only constant.
Significantly, in shifting its points-of-view in the manner that it does, Frammartino’s film connects man to nature, but places him at the same time apart from it. In its focus on the goatherd’s daily toil, the film suggests the essence of man lies in such labour – in, that is, his relationship to the natural world. Crucially, man manipulates the natural world so as to be a part of it: this is clear in the surreal, long shots of the man-made village itself from afar, atop a hill.
Admirably, Frammartino doesn’t shy from the contradictory nature of life: just as the film begins to shift its focus to the goats, and in doing so invokes much humour in the notion of some anarchic ascendancy on their part, we watch the final, exhausted breaths of the dying goatherd, and finally his eyes losing life. A brief interlude of black screen invokes at first death, and a sound familiar from the film’s opening – that of a spade beating the top of a scarazzo (charcoal kiln) – invokes a vague doom. But then the film leaps to life again in the form of a goat falling from its mother’s womb; the beating spade could just as easily have been this newborn’s heart.
That the sound of the spade, established in the film’s opening sequence, is used ambiguously during this interval is telling of La quattro volte’s investment into a sustainable culture of recycling: the process involving the scarazzo is one by which the tree of the film’s third act is cut down into logs and thence transformed into coal. The film’s pantheism seems both physical and provocative.
The kiln sequence channels (probably unintentionally) two other, very different films, for which sound design and imagery played an important part in emphasising their industrial settings. The image of a formidable mound of earth vaguely echoes David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976), a film whose title was informed by the surreal sequence in which its protagonist’s head is recycled by a complex process into the erasers placed onto pencils in a production line; similarly, the connection that film made between recycled images of dust (or images of recycled dust?) find echo here too.
Secondly, when the camera observes the two workers forming the scarazzo from inside it, slowly being interred and eventually being overcome by darkness, the film visually recalls the ending of Béla Tarr’s Satan’s Tango (1994). It’s a connection made all the more amusing given the apocalyptic, despairing nature of the earlier film. Frammartino’s, by contrast, is not only amusing in its spontaneity but captivating in its practical ambition and narrative efficiency. Look no further than the long take in which a dog tries creatively to tell a village its master is dying; it’s an incredible scene that deserves the price of admission alone.