The Romantics, English and German, are often derided for their worshipful stance toward Nature (with a capital N), for the manner in which someone like Hölderlin can find friendship and immortality among a clump of oaks and someone like Wordsworth can hear the ‘still sad music of humanity’ issue from the onward streaming of the River Wye, but the problem casts further back even than that. It gets at the Stoics, one of whom made a point of instructing in his handbook that one should ‘live according to nature.’ What does it mean, and what can it, when a film sets out to capture Nature without obtruding anything on it, without making it live according to the filmmaker and not the other way around? In the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and multi international film festival winning entry, Michelangelo Frammartino’s occasionally astonishing poem-on-celluloid, this is precisely what seems to be on the line, or at least it does at first blush.
The more one watches the routine wakings and menial comings and goings of its apparent star, the affectingly hoary and impossibly avuncular Giuseppe Fuda (although its tragic lynchpin may in fact be a pine tree), the less it seems sold on the notion of itself as some kind of votive offering to the Nature of the Romantics, mocked only to be consecrated as they were. More to the point, it is not even about Nature. Nor, sadly, is it about that stubbornest of reifications, The Human Condition (feel free to venture a definition). But what can a film that features exactly zero lines of conventional and discernable dialogue, which frequently and gleefully crosses all kinds of representational boundaries both of film and drama (showing, for instance, and in the first few minutes, too, its ‘protagonist’ defecating and wiping himself), even mean? We have very little as audience members to latch onto at the start, just a confusing title about four turns, four cycles (and not the incredibly indelicate ‘four times’ that seems to have been adopted), and a bunch of reviews that divide pretty neatly into two classes: the incredulous negative review crying ‘hermetic’ and ‘pretentious’ and the rhapsodic positive review singing . . . something-or-other. Pythagoras, they say, and one even brought up (to great comic effect, intended or not) the Greek creation myths in Hesiod’s Theogony. But perhaps meaning isn’t such a big concern, maybe it’s more about feeling. Whatever that may mean.
And what does that mean? Possibly nothing. The only film it even remotely reminds one of is the obscure and completely silent essay-documentary hybrid (albeit with no real voiceover documentation) of the fin de siècle masterpieces of Gaudí by Hiroshi Teshigahara, a film which may do indoors and with human structures what Frammartino’s film does with slightly less stiff and artificial subjects, be it a pregnant goat or a dying old man. And whereas that film has a lingering sense of perspectival austerity, from the very beginning Frammartino has the good sense to undercut any such high-flown ambiance with all kinds of humorous and sometimes slightly disgusting touches, as in the case described above of the main character taking care of business or, elsewhere, the very graphic delivery of said pregnant goat. The thing is that any kind of description will fall short of the experience of watching it, and that’s because this is not a film that lends itself to description, in the way that Zerkalo and Persona are not films that lend themselves to description.
If we wanted to set down something like a plot summary, well, this is what it would look like. There’s an old man, a shepherd (with all the attendant Biblical and secular implications, though one shouldn’t pursue them too avidly) living at the top of a very nice-looking hill in Calabria watching over his goats. He’s using the dust from the floor of the church as some kind of makeshift ointment for some reason (no dialogue, no luck), but apparently that doesn’t work out and instead of seeking a second opinion he just sort of dies. One of his goats, as mentioned above, is pregnant. It may or may not be the case that the shepherd’s death (it’s okay if you want to capitalize it, but grammar and allegory are really not on the best of terms) corresponds formally and eerily to the yeanling’s birth. What does this mean? It could be reduced any number of ways into some schmaltzy, half-assed non-thesis about death and renewal and cyclicity and the circle of life and whatever, of which Disney would do a terrific job, complete with choir of angels hovering overhead, but in Frammartino’s hands it is so startling and immediate a contrast, despite the fact that one sees it coming and it almost telegraphs itself, and the image so utterly chastening in its ragged beauty and bareness that the mind’s reasoning quarters close shop and all one experiences is the strangeness-cum-familiarity of it. And strange it certainly is.
Whether strangeness is or is not the defining quality of any real art, what is astonishing about Le quattro volte is how normal it feels while one watches it, and how progressively it gets stranger and stranger the further one gets from it. ‘More strangely and more true,’ writes the poet. But (back to capital letters again) is Frammartino after Truth? Probably not as such a rigid category, no, and not even as a word one might capitalize, but rather as a mosaic of vignettes that are both natural and fabricated, both utterly alien and completely familiar, and in the interstitial lining enjoining the different panels of this tapestry of blood and sweat (pardon the melodrama) we happen from time to time to recognize a fleck of a speck of something that at some point reminded us of truth, whatever that was. And even then this is overselling it. Because Truth cannot be bounded in an eighty-eight-minute-long nutshell. One hopes it’s a bit longer than that, at least. What is there, though, and there in a supply that is directly proportional to the investment of the viewer and grows exponentially with the same, are a series of images that are more natural than their subject, which feel smoother and subtler than the slow descent of night.
But it is hermetic. And it is pretentious. And it is self-conscious. And if it weren’t it probably wouldn’t be worth watching. Because there are few scenes in recent cinema as powerful as the falling of that pine tree at the feet of a couple of lumberjacks and their slow progress into the unnamed village. It looks like a prisoner, and one finds oneself feeling genuinely moved—by the felling of a tree. It’s not the River Wye and it’s not one of Hölderlin’s oaks, but like all of us, like everything, it will come at last to dust and ‘fade away . . . into forest dim’—into that ultimate drunkenness of nonbeing. The value of Le Quattro Volte consists in the way that it enamors the willing viewer and brings him face to face with this, and everything else. And you don’t need Hesiod and Pythagoras to make sense of that.
The disc, as per the practice at Kino with new releases, doesn’t really come with any extras, but the image quality as a result of its being on Blu-Ray is almost an extra unto itself. Just the fact that it’s being put out in the United States is a coup, of course, and what it does come with besides this are the original theatrical trailer, which glamorizes the film to a distasteful degree, and a stills gallery with about a dozen frames. The quality of the stills is great too, and captures some of the film’s critical moments, if in the end it can be said to have any of these
A film that requires a real investment on the part of the viewer of the sum total of his energies. Don’t watch this late at night and don’t even watch it with anyone else. Watch it alone. In a dark room (never mind that nonsense about the lack of any lighting being bad for you). And after you get over the initial reaction against the film’s method, and grow accustomed to it, and start to make sense of all of the moving parts, keep on watching. You really won’t regret it, if you manage to arrive at that point.