A mesmerizing, mystifying work about the nature of existence, Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte deals with themes both universal and metaphysical. And yet its execution is rooted in a specific, immediate portrait of the physical world as seen in a mountain village in Southern Italy.
Nearly wordless, the film plays out in serene long takes that illustrate the cyclical rhythms of life and the ironic connections that result, sometimes cruelly and sometimes comically. Based on Pythagoras’s conception of the soul’s journey through four physical states, Le Quattro Volte is a pretty stunning piece of work.
The film’s only identifiable human character is an elderly goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda), who lives alone and spends most of his time with his flock. Facing a grave illness, the man finds comfort in a holy dirt-like substance, blessed by the church to give it medicinal powers apparently. (Any incidental Italian dialogue that would lend a clue is un-subtitled.)
The goat herd may be the only defined human in the film, but he’s hardly the only character, as a post-death journey of the soul gives us opportunity to focus on a baby goat, born onscreen before our eyes, a tall, skinny tree and a technologically fascinating charcoal kiln. Human, animal, vegetable and mineral all get their place in the spotlight, with the physical similarities and connections that Frammartino captures hinting at a deeper spiritual resonance.
The film, which can be wryly funny and existentially frightening, is a masterwork of camera control and environmental design, for lack of a better term. Each of the film’s events play out with distinct naturalism — especially impressive in the case of the goat scenes — and Frammartino no doubt had to exercise great patience to achieve the placid, soothing takes the film is made up of.
One such scene, which shows a sheepdog unwittingly wreaking havoc on the village square during an Easter procession, is incredibly executed. Shot entirely in one long shot and lasting for minutes, it’s the kind of shot that takes immense amounts of preparation but looks totally in the moment.