CAPSULE: LE QUATTRO VOLTE (2010)

AKA The Four Times

DIRECTED BY: Michelangelo Frammartino

FEATURING: Giuseppe Fuda

PLOT: An old goatherd dies; a goat is born, grows up and dies; a tree is cut down and made

Still from Le Quattro Volte (2010)

into charcoal.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Le Quattro Volte is a strange document crafted to illustrate a strange thesis; its weirdness comes more in the conception than the execution, however.  Most of the time, Le Quattro Volte is like watching a National Geographic special with the narrator’s commentary track stripped away.  It can be mesmerizing if you’re in a contemplative mood, but it doesn’t put that “weird” feeling in your gut.

COMMENTS:  If someone accidentally wandered into a theater playing Le Quattro Volte and observed the sequence of events—there’s no plot, per se—without any preparation or background information, they’d be completely confounded by this mystical, dialogue-free film.  In the first forty minutes an old man herds goats, drinks ashes mixed with water, and dies.  In the next twenty minutes a goat is born, explores its world, gets separated from the herd, and dies (presumably ) under a tree.  In the second-to-last segment that tree is cut down by villagers, stripped of bark and branches and used as the centerpiece of a vaguely pagan tree-climbing ritual; for a finale, the trunk is chopped up and made into charcoal.  The end.  Puzzling, no?  Of course, having access to the pressbook we know [“spoiler” alert],  that the “quattro volte” (“four times”) of the title come from a quote by the ancient Greek mystic and mathematician Pythagoras, and refers to his theory that the human soul is composed of rational (represented by the shepherd), animal (goat), vegetable (tree) and mineral (charcoal) parts, and that the soul may be reincarnated at the moment of death into any of the four types of matter [end “spoiler”].  As the viewer journeys through Volte, he encounters a number of scenes which work as odd little self-contained film poems.  There’s the mysterious shot of a steaming mound that starts the film, a live goat birth, and a woman who measures out and wraps the dust she sweeps up from the church floor into a little bundle made from a magazine cover with the same precision a cocaine dealer uses when preparing an eight ball.  (There is a heavily ritualistic, almost sacred component to even the smallest actions in Le Quattro Volte).  Most impressive is an astounding eight-minute, one-take scene involving a passion play, centurions who unwisely park their pickup truck on a hill, and a vindictive sheepdog that should leave you wondering how in the world the choreography was accomplished.  The film is shot in sunny, tan Calabria, a picturesque region of rolling hills and rustic stone homes with tile roofs that seems unchanged by the centuries; many of the longshots look like landscape paintings from old Italian masters, but with figures slowly moving deep in the background.  People do speak in the film, but only off in the distance, so that speech is just sonic texture, like the barking of dogs, the bleating of goats and the rustling of leaves in the wind.  Language, and human activity in general, is abstracted in the film, marginalized, so that the fate of a man is no more important than the fate of a goat or a tree.

With landscapes, compositions and narrative pace that all resemble a picture postcard, Le Quattro Volte is art with a capital “A.”  As a film it can neither be generally recommended, or recommended against.  It’s intended for a specialized audience of aesthetes and film critics, and it’s a movie that’s unlikely to transcend that demographic.  If you’re at all intrigued by the description above, you’ll probably want to check it out.  But if you have your doubts about whether you can stand staring at the screen while an ant slowly crawls across a shepherd’s craggy face for minutes on end, then watching this movie will seem like taking medicine: you may sense it’s good for you, but you’re sure to grimace trying to get it down.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a devastating, profound and at times surreal work of art.”–Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

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