Review: ‘Le Quattro Volte’
A New Kind of Italian Neo-Realism
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Sometimes you crave fast food and sometimes you need slow food that does more than just satisfy your hunger, it also feeds your soul. "Le Quattro Volte" is cinematic slow food. It takes its time, is meticulous in its presentation, carefully considers the experience it provides, and then serves up a satisfying and nourishing feast.
Even more than the current "The Tree of Life," "Le Quattro Volte" eschews conventional narrative and dialogue to tell a story almost exclusively through images. The film is in Italian but because there is practically no dialogue, the rare spoken word is not translated. And that's fine. Frammartino communicates beautifully with just his images.
The title translates as "Four Times." The press materials inform me that the film was "inspired by Pythagoras’ belief in four-fold transmigration — by which the soul is passed from human to animal to vegetable to mineral." I probably wouldn't have guessed that but upon reflection the film does play out as a meditation on the cycle of life as revealed through the daily rituals of life in a small southern Italian village in Calabria.
The film begins and ends with the local ritual of making coal and images of ash and smoke, invoking the phrase "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." And in a sense what we do through the film is follow one soul through four successive stages of life or existence. So we begin with the old goat herder who soon passes. But then a goat is born just as he's laid to rest. Then we witness a majestic old tree brought down and eventually transformed into wood coal. All this translates into an unbroken cycle of rituals and traditions in this village, and a sense of how life
Frammartino's film is documentary like in the sense that it doesn't feel like he is intruding on what's happening in the small town. Yet there's definitely the feeling of a crafted narrative going on. Take a an 8-minute single shot that observes one tiny road in the village from high up. The camera pans slowly back and forth, capturing all the activity from a priest trying to get by a barking dog to a truck rolling down a hill and knocking down a fence so that the herd of goats can take over the village. The shot may seem like casual observation yet everything feels perfectly timed out. The truck starts to roll just as the camera pans away and we hear the crash off screen only to pan back just as the goats are escaping. It's a small drama played out within one graceful shot. It perfectly conveys the events and rhythms of this tiny world.
"La Quattro Volte" (unrated and in Italian but with no subtitles and none needed) is an exquisitely crafted art film. And it is definitely designed as an art film, as something poetic, thoughtful, and provocative. It's also funny, charming, touching, and a pleasure to watch.
Companion viewing: "The Tree of Life," "The Tree of Wooden Clogs," "Cave of the Yellow Dog"