The Tower and the Abyss
By Forrest Cardamenis
Dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy, Grasshopper Film
There is a scene about halfway through Il Buco, Michelangelo Frammartino’s long-awaited follow-up to 2010’s Le Quattro Volte, in which a speleologist, already a couple hundred meters deep in Calabria’s Bifurto Abyss, one of the world’s deepest caves, rips a page from a magazine, sets it ablaze with his helmet light, and drops it still deeper. We first watch from just above him as the makeshift torch cascades along the ridges of the cave, and then we listen once it has fallen out of sight and continues to drop. Having lost sight of it, the speleologist lights and releases another page. Just as he does, the film cuts; we are now at the bottom of the chasm watching the fire float down, touch the ground, and eventually peter out. The entire process takes about two minutes and is but one among the film’s countless breathtaking moments.
There is nary a wasted second in the entire sequence; we do not wait for the speleologists to enter the frame, and we do not wait in darkness at the end after the fire is out of sight or out of oxygen. In refusing to extend his shots past their natural end points, Frammartino is placing a great deal of trust in the audience. Earlier, when the team that will investigate the Bifurto Abyss is walking along a path to their lodging the night before they will drive to the landmark, the camera is placed high above the scene. We watch, with a distant but unimpeded view, as the team marches along on the right, some stray cats play on the roofs to the left, and in the middle, below it all, villagers mill about. We can see at the top of the screen, far from the camera, a farmer wrangling and perhaps preparing to slaughter cattle, but before he does, the film cuts. This is not because Frammartino—surely an animal lover, if his films are anything to go by—prefers us not to see it, but simply because the speleologists have made it to their destination. We watched them enter and exit the frame and all the while we watched the villagers go about their business without acknowledging them. Later, we will watch the speleologists work their way, slowly but surely, down to the bottom of the caves, in shots so staggering one would be forgiven for thinking Frammartino was elongating them unnecessarily if his cuts were not so precise.
Indeed, the resplendence of the cave sequences must be seen to be believed, and their ingenuity marks Il Buco as a significant work of digital filmmaking. Frammartino actually descended into the Bifurto Abyss for these shots, sometimes a few hundred meters deep, where the only light was from the bulbs mounted on the helmets of the performers (all professional speleologists). While Frammartino was down below, DP Renato Berta stayed above waiting, sometimes for hours, to see the first images and controlling the camera remotely, via fiber-optic cable. Most of these sequences are completely dark save for the helmet light, which changes direction and intensity as its source moves about the frame and turns toward a stalactite or ridge or out past the next big drop into seemingly infinite darkness. The mere existence of these shots is remarkable; they would justify the film on their own. It is tempting to wax poetic about the visual metaphor and philosophy attributable to them, but they are at their most expansive as documentary.
This is not to say Il Buco is pure visual spectacle. There is an ideological conflict that is central to the sixties-set narrative and replicated in the movie's aesthetic approach. Early in the film, we observe a group of villagers watching a TV special on the construction of Milan’s Pirelli Tower, the nation’s tallest building and a symbol of its economic boom and entry into the capitalist West. After a few seconds, Frammartino cuts away from the villagers and takes us directly into the program, in which a window-washer and the anchor survey the view from ever-higher rungs on the corporate ladder. This is the only scene in the entire film with dialogue, and Frammartino devotes significant screen time to it, as if to highlight its thematic significance.
At a glimpse, the Pirelli Tower is the antithesis of the Bifurto Abyss. The tower is a manmade structure extending to the sky in a prosperous and urban area in the north of Italy; the abyss sinks downward toward the earth in contiguous Italy’s southernmost region, which is one of its most impoverished and rural as well. Yet, Frammartino implies, the tower’s construction and the cave’s exploration are united by a desire to conquer the vertical dimension of the land.
Art historian W. J. T. Mitchell has theorized that landscape depictions demonstrate an imperialist impulse, an attempt to assert mastery and control over land and to consolidate national identity. Indeed, a parallel narrative thread in El Buco concerns a shepherd, the only person who seems to notice the arrival of the speleologists, who hail from Turin, another metropolitan business center in Northern Italy. As the spelunkers descend deeper, the shepherd gets sicker. We watch as a man sits at his bedside, neither moving nor talking, in a shot that lingers for some time. Perhaps an animal milling about the countryside will be visible through the doorway. As we transition back into and out of the caves, we will first see a handful of landscape shots, wide open expanses of grass and farm animals with distant mountains towering far above in the soft light of an overcast day. A cartographer among the crew then charts the cave on increasingly large pieces of paper with similar magnifications of detail, including precise measurements of the depth of various crannies, ridges, and drops. So comprehensive and so systematic is the labeling that one would be forgiven for mistaking the work as that of an architect making a skyscraper plan. It’s no wonder, then, that the completion of his chart coincides with the literal death of the shepherd and, by extension, the symbolic death of his way of life.
Frammartino’s critique is not, however, aimed at the expedition; he is an amateur speleologist himself, and one need only look at the shots taken from within the cave to detect the immense love the director has for the activity. What he is critical of—in a way that echoes Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini, two countrymen who made some of their best work around the time Il Buco takes place—is how dissenting ideas and actions are nefariously co-opted to reinforce capitalism and its narrative of unending progress. Just as Ernesto de Martino’s ethnographic work and religious studies were used to introduce Italy’s southern regions to the rest of the nation, the Bifurto Abyss became a symbol of its natural wonders, another tool in the formation of national identity. Meanwhile, in the South, villagers learn about the Pirelli Tower, which promises to one day pull them, too, up into the sky, into an earthly heaven marked by prosperity and wealth.
Yet for all that Calabria has given to Italy, it has received little in return. It is among the country’s poorest and least-employed regions, and its population dwindles by the year as natives seek better prospects elsewhere. It was not until 2017 that Calabria was finally connected to Naples and Salerno via the A3 highway, despite plans to do so since the early ’60s. The promise signified by the Pirelli Tower and the postwar economic “miracle” never blessed Calabria. The shepherd is gone, but nothing has come to replace him. Calabria’s natural beauty remains in abundance, but as its recent history reveals, beauty has little currency in the modern world, and those who profit from it are rarely those who possess it. Beauty is only something you see hundreds of meters deep in a hole in the ground, or perhaps projected onto the white wall of a dark room.