Film Review: Le Quattro Volte

Those so disposed can think deep thoughts as they ponder the perennial mysteries of nature and the cinematic gaze, but the strength of this pantomime depicting the stages and states of life is its simple beauty.

With no dialogue, a protagonist who disappears after the first act, and a narrative based on the transmigration of the soul, Le Quattro Volte is genuine art-house fare. Michelangelo Frammartino, an academic with a decided metaphysical bent, wrote and directed this meditative, lyrically photographed cinépoéme (to appropriate a term popular in the 1920s) that celebrates the interconnectivity of “everything that surrounds us,” as he puts it. The title, translated as “the four times,” riffs on the four seasons and the four realms of matter, if you add human to animal, mineral and vegetable. To put it another way, Frammartino imagines the cycle of life springing from an ancient animism here expressed as the mystical brand of Catholicism practiced by the villagers of a remote town in the mountains of Calabria, where the events of the film, such as they are, unfold.

All this sounds awfully earnest and more than a bit dreary, but Le Quattro Volte is a charming, likable movie, despite the director’s pretensions. Lorber Films press material has Frammartino banging on about Pythagoras and the doctrine of metempsychosis (Wikipedia will enlighten you), and posing questions such as, “Can cinema free itself of the dogma which dictates that human beings should occupy the leading role?” Audiences, of course, won’t have access to these lecture notes, and won’t need them. Le Quattro Volte succeeds because it’s a beguiling portrait of a place and people outside of time, graciously rendered by cinematographer Andrea Locatelli, whose naturalistic approach paradoxically imbues the film with powerful emotion.

Think of a sonata in four movements: The first and longest finds an old shepherd tending goats in the hills outside a walled town. He’s ill, barely able to make the daily trek from his stone house by the village gate. At night, he stirs a handful of dust swept from the church nave into a glass of water that he drinks like medicine, an attempt to cure his wracking cough. There is no miracle. As the shepherd breathes his last, an Easter procession—Christ carrying his cross, accompanied by mourners and Roman centurions—passes his house. The goats escape their pen, invading his bedroom and the village.

The second movement begins with the birth of a kid. We watch the young goat mature, but on its first day out with the herd, it falls behind and becomes separated, then lost. We last see it bleating under a giant fir tree in the forest as night falls. Summer turns into winter.
The third movement finds the villagers cutting down the fir tree that sheltered (or failed to shelter) the kid. The tree is stripped and dragged through the hills to town, where it is decorated and raised like a flagpole to celebrate an annual festival, part religious, part pagan, in early spring.

After the celebration, the tree is felled a second time, cut into logs, and carted to a site where villagers have constructed a crude hearth and chimney that chars fresh wood into a form of charcoal, which in turn is distributed in town for fuel. The kiln is primitive, but the primordial process completes the cycle of life: matter (and soul) has transformed from man to animal to tree to mineral, the fourth movement.

In tune with the sonata form, Frammartino employs leitmotifs throughout the performance, including dramatic blackouts, and he films the town from recurring angles and perspectives as circumstances change. Though there is no dialogue, ambient sound provides actual musical accompaniment, ranging from the bass thump of the villagers tending to their kiln with shovels, to the tinkling of goat bells in the pasture. In fact, the pantomime and ambient sounds of Le Quattro Volte evoke the films of Jacques Tati, and one sustained scene involving the shepherd’s dog, a rickety truck, the Easter procession and goats gone wild is much in the Tati tradition…ending, as it does, in the key of melancholy, which seems a good phrase to sum up this offbeat but oddly affecting ode.