As an old man lies dying in his bed, his loyal herd of goats looks on with curiosity. One of them remains downstairs, standing atop the table to knock over a bucket and get at its contents. The goatherd’s death, heralded by increasingly painful coughing fits, has been coming for some time now. His chosen medication is the gathered dust from the floor of his local church, dissolved in water and consumed nightly. In any other film, the oddity of this tale would be the central focus, but for Le Quattro Volte it is handled with such deftness of purpose as to seem positively mundane.
The goatherd’s final days occupy almost half of the film’s running time, though it is just one of the four stories presented. Le Quattro Volte (translated as The Four Times) is at first glance a casual look over life in a rural Italian village, following after the man’s demise are the fates of three other “characters”. Shot with a docu-fictional aesthetic—indeed it could have easily been a documentary; save for one spectacularly choreographed staged sequence, it seems a diary of this village’s life—it is free of dialogue and music, devoid of action, and yet manages more comedy, drama, and genuinely arresting tension than any other film this year.
From these goats comes the town’s milk, which the goatherd delivers daily to each of the buildings. His routine consists of an early awakening to bring the penned goats to their pasture, where he sits and admires the beauty of this hillside location as his animals feed. His loyal dog accompanies him at all times, doubling back behind the goats to check on his master when he is overcome by his pain and collapses. In a simple few shots, director Michelangelo Frammartino establishes the routine of this character, the repeated static angles describing the concrete pattern of this man’s days. The camera moves only in the slightest of swings to take in the dog’s bounding up and down a street after a procession of Easter celebrants, following him as loyally as he does his owner. The sequence of events that leads to the surreal scene of a house full of goats is too delightful to watch unfold to spoil by describing, one of the most technically accomplished and comically pleasing movie moments in recent history. Many critics have blamed the old man’s death, which follows soon after, on the unusual homeopathic treatment he had prescribed himself. I find it interesting to note that it was only the morning after he failed to complete this ritual that he succumbed to his illness.
Where death leaves off, birth picks up. Though the goatherd’s segment of the film is beautifully shot and draws us slowly but surely into the world of this village, it is not so compelling as that which follows it. We next encounter a kid, born to one of the old man’s goats in a scene which is alarmingly explicit, albeit brief. They are now housed in a concrete pen, tended to by some new villagers whom we see little of. Frammartino allows the camera to simply observe the animal in its first moments of life, watching it struggle to stand as its mother licks its head affectionately. The kid’s panicked sounds and disoriented movements instantly capture our concern, attaching us to this “character” inextricably. From this moment on, Le Quattro Volte becomes arguably a straight documentary, following the kid’s progress through its earliest days. Many of the images Frammartino captures in this segment are simply phenomenal. The best of these sees all of the young kids, left behind as their parents are taken to graze, vying for the spot atop a box positioned in their hut. There is no evident advantage to standing on the box, but they each fight to be the one on it. Here Frammartino catches nature profoundly demonstrating its own inherent qualities. When the kid becomes lost from the herd as they walk up a hill, it is agonising to hear its unanswered cries for its mother. Stories do not come more basic, but with the benefit of Frammartino’s exceptional camerawork this one transcends mere narrative simplicity to achieve a striking unadulterated emotion.
There is a shot where we see a fly trace its way across the kid’s face, remaining steadfast as it is attempted to be shaken off. It recalls an earlier moment where the goatherd tried to pull an irritating ant from his cheek, encouraging us to consider the connection between the two. After we have finished with the kid’s story, the film cuts to a shot of a massive tree, before focusing on a particular section of the trunk being traversed by a perseverant insect. The point where you realise that Frammartino has had the audacity to make a tree his next protagonist is the point where you will either lose patience with the film or fall in love with it forever. I was pleased to experience the latter. Le Quattro Volte is an expertly constructed film, relying on the distinct traits of its medium to communicate its points. This is the kind of film André Bazin would have cherished as an incarnation of pure cinema. Frammartino’s camera gently guides us through the illustrious narrative tapestry he weaves; doing away with the decadence of dialogue he returns us to the days where image was all. Editing takes a more important role here, each cut layering the story with additional meaning, often saying more than words ever could.
Le Quattro Volte is a rare pleasure. In a time where we are being told that spectacle-added dimensions will breed a deeper immersion, it is refreshing to see a film truly return to the roots of cinema and demonstrate what it is to be really immersed in a film. An often tensely dramatic and surrealistically hilarious odyssey through the circle of life and the entirety of existence, this is a film that takes us on a staggering journey through deep philosophical concepts of spiritualism and faith. Frammartino takes a camera to nature and constructs for us a precise understanding of our place within it. Le Quattro Volte is the kind of film that plucks you out of yourself and returns you, ninety minutes later, a new person. Can there be a more immersive experience than that?
[notification type=”star”]99/100 ~ MASTERFUL. Le Quattro Volte is free of dialogue and music, devoid of action, and yet manages more comedy, drama, and genuinely arresting tension than any other film this year.[/notification]