Le Quattro Volte means ‘the four times’ and refers to four cycles of life: human, animal, vegetable and mineral. The film tells the stories of all four through an old man, his resilient dog, a herd of goats and then, well, trees. This really is a stellar cast. How director Michelangelo Frammartino handled the goats with such skill and narrative effect is a mystery.
The film is set in the village of Caulonia, in the southern Italian area of Calabria, where Frammartino’s family originates. The way it is portrayed in the film, it seems like the town must have been functioning in the same way for the last thousand years or more. The western way of life as we know it is only elliptically referred to with the roar of a chainsaw as a great fir falls, or a fashion magazine, Grazia, having a page torn out to wrap up what I assume, in my ignorance, is traditional medicine. Frammartino uses non-professional actors and it feels as if the film documents real life in this village and yet does not explain it, we are only asked to bear witness. While the film educates the viewer about Caulonia, it shows more just how little we, or maybe just I, understand.
Frammartino shoots the film with subtle consideration. It is composed of slow static shots that are a beautiful elegy to life and nature. The shadow of clouds recedes across the plateau on which Caulonia is built. Dust swirls in the only ray of sunlight creeping into the old man’s sparse home. All lighting is natural and the framing is spot on when you consider that goats probably don’t take excellent direction, especially not kids.
There is no dialogue. No dialogue that is given subtitles at any rate. Most lines go to the goats. In fact, the chime of each goat’s bell provides the only soundtrack. That, and the old man’s incessant death rattle. So quiet was the film that audience members coughing were as much a part of the sound as the actual film’s audio. This may have had something to do with the overwhelmingly senior audience. So far I’ve been to three films and the audience has been largely older, The Tree of Life being, perhaps, an exception.
The film moves at the pace of its main character: the old man ambles along when his cough doesn’t force him to sit and take a rest. Perhaps this glacial pace was why only twenty minutes in a woman behind me said she had to leave as it was too boring. There weren’t that many walkouts though, less than ten probably, which is pretty good for a sold-out session in Event Cinema 4, George Street, which is huge. Though after the movie I overheard one elderly lady say that she was wondering if there was ever going to be a point. Her husband replied that there wasn’t and she agreed. A point not conveyed in words perhaps, but Le Quattro Volte uses stunning imagery to convey life and the inevitability and necessity of death.
Before Le Quattro Volte a short Polish film called The Charcoal Burners (Piotr Zlotorowicz) was shown. This interesting and intimate film examines the life of an elderly couple whose occupation appears to be moving logs that are delivered to them into a great metal furnace, the size of a small room. All this lumber is then burnt. The film doesn’t stoop to explain their actions and accordingly I had no idea why. In the last cycle of Le Quattro Volte we see the story of minerals. In it three Italian men engage in similar action to the Poles. The furnace they make is truly a structural feet, built as it is out of the materials it will consume. Out of the coals and ashes left over we see the men fill hessian bags with coal. I finally had a revelation when these were then delivered to the doors of villagers to use, presumably, for heat and cooking. I had no idea the operation of producing coal could exist outside of huge industry. Props to Sydney Film Festival for such informative timetabling.