Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'

Italian docu-essay Le Quattro Volte out-Malicks Malick
High on a hill was a lonely goatherd: Giuseppe Fuda in Le Quattro Volte.


FILM There are "documentaries" that use staged or fictive elements to fib, and others toward some greater truth. Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte is of the second type. You might well question just how much of this "docu-essay" simply occurred on camera, or occurred when/how it did for the camera. But that really doesn't matter, because the results have their own enigmatic, lyrical truth, one that might not have been arrived at by pure observation. In some ways, this is a better movie about life, existence, and the possibility of God than The Tree of Life. At the very least, it's shorter.

It might help to know — though the film itself won't tell you — that Frammartino drew inspiration from the purported theories of ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, and mystic Pythagoras. (Purported because his sect was highly secretive and no writings survive.) He believed in transmigration of the soul, a.k.a. metempsychosis — souls reincarnating from human to animal to various elements, endlessly replenishing nature.

Pythagoras and followers moved to a Greek-émigré outpost in the southern Italian region of Calabria to start their own religious community, one whose extreme exclusivity led to their persecution and demise — though the unquestionably brilliant leader's ideas would live on not just in mathematics but as an influence on later quasi-religious "secret societies" like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism.

There, now you have some CliffsNotes on a movie that itself chooses to wash over the viewer almost as neutrally as the stationary landscape studies of James Benning. Void of recorded music and nearly all speech (the few overheard bits go untranslated), Frammartino's film — shot in and around the medieval Calabrian village of Serra San Bruno — is part neorealist nod and part metaphysical rapture. (No Harold Camping reference intended.) It is gorgeous, and occasionally goofy. Just like the deity one might pick to be Up There.

The narrative, so to speak, first focuses on a wizened goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) who creakily drives his flock into the grazing hills. The world might be getting more crowded every minute, humanity overbearing on nature till hairy predators invade suburbs — but there are still some places people are mostly leaving. Metaphorical tumbleweeds might as well be tumbling through the streets of his depleted town. Coughing himself to sleep at night in his spare room — three chairs used as shelves, suggesting company he'll never have — he's an exemplar of a vanishing lifestyle, one seemingly little-changed since the town's founding a millennium ago.

Indeed local human society appears less diverse, sturdy, and communicative than that of our protagonist's goats, which fascinate. The young ones are cute as heck; the adults handsome and dignified. A kid whose birth we observe slides out of mom splay-legged, looking a bit like the "baby" in Eraserhead (1977), making a sound like a squeak toy — then later panicking at being left behind in a gully. Guarding the goat-pen, the herder's dog freaks at a passing annual costumed parade of Passion Play reenactors. When the gate is broken, goats scatter surreally around town, including the quarters of their dying keeper. (This is where the "documentary" claim seems least probable, as the fabulous imagery can hardly have been an accident.)

Le Quattro Volte — the four times, meaning four soul migrations — goes on from there, transferring its focus from man to kid to a tree felled for another annual ritual. (Yes, that's just three incarnations; Frammatino flummoxed me on the fourth.) It's a frequently ravishing abstract, sonically as well as visually — collar-bells meld with church bells, and even the buzzing of flies seems part-of-the-natural-order beneficent.

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