Dust to Dust
by Benjamin Mercer

Le Quattro volte
Dir. Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy, Kino Releasing

A hybrid fable about the cosmic interconnectedness of all things and a document of rural daily existence, Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino’s beguiling Le Quattro volte (The Four Times) presents life as cycle and the earth as circuit, a feedback loop of matter and quiet splendor. Frammartino and his cinematographer, Andrea Locatelli, employ the static long shots and extended single takes used by so many contemporary makers of documentary-inflected, landscape-fixated fiction features, from Lisandro Alonso to Jia Zhangke, to tell a story of the transmigration of a soul from a man to a goat to a tree to a burlap sack of charcoal—the almost complete absence of dialogue also underscores the primacy of the visuals (and of voiceless living beings) in Le Quattro volte. The film’s events all take place in the Calabria region of Italy, marked by rolling hillsides and intact medieval villages, and once the home of the first famous vegetarian, Pythagoras, whose ideas about metempsychosis here find a well-modulated celluloid incarnation.

The film opens on an elderly goat herder, and while the scenes with his flock suggest he’s a non-actor going about his actual business, his activities are captured in carefully arranged compositions. No fictional elements readily apparent as such alter the work routine on display—but then we notice the herder’s illness and his unusual treatment for it. He coughs constantly and walks slowly, as if in great pain, barely able to keep up with his herd. Before bed every night, he takes a cure of dust from the floor of the town’s church, which he stirs into a glass of water and drinks. He trades bottles of goat’s milk for this strange medicine, packaged in the carefully folded leaf of a magazine page—just another recurring exchange of daily life. His activities are not presented in an exclusively neat or sanitized fashion, though: we see him coming home to discover that the snails he has collected in his kitchen have escaped their pot, the light through the open door glinting off their trails, and at another point we see him squat to defecate in a meadow. Frammartino, again much like Alonso, seems eager to deal with these more squalid aspects of the everyday, touching on bodily processes as so many smaller life cycles as well.

Before long, he lies on his deathbed. Yet right before this Frammartino orchestrates a breathtaking one-take comic set piece in which a panic-stricken dog disrupts an Easter parade, which causes a small pickup truck to crash through the gates holding the goats, who proceed to storm the man’s house. This astonishing sequence, followed up by a clearly fictional death scene, indicates that Le Quattro volte will stray further from the documentary form, continuing to take in the Calabrian natural scenery while building a mystical framework for interpreting it. Frammartino’s strategies are simple, and he introduces the grand death/rebirth, all-living-things-are-carbon-based theme via a single cut, from the man breathing his last to a goat kid emerging from the womb and falling to the ground, covered in fluid.

The ensuing animal rebirth section is the film’s most amusing, with the goats’ strange expressions and relentless baah-ing casting an otherworldly spell as did the sheep in the documentary Sweetgrass (featured in last year’s New York Film Festival). The kid we see born after a time back at the barn goes out to pasture, but eventually gets lost, wandering alone through the meadows and mountainsides, coming to rest only beneath an enormous creaking fir tree. There is then another cut that suggests the continuity of all living things, to the tree in wintertime, capped by snow, with no kid in sight. So the tree gets its season as protagonist, too. We see it felled for a festival back in the village, pruned and whittled down to a thin but tall tower, and hoisted in the town’s center, and then cut down even further before being hauled off by coal makers. They build a dome in which to char the wood, a squat structure with porthole vents poked across its midsection.

The most memorable images from Le Quattro volte’s “fourth time,” in which the felled tree turns to charcoal in the burning mound, are of the smoke emerging from the holes in the side of the dome, curling and eddying before the wind finally decides which way to carry it. In Alexei Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls, a Russian entry in this year’s festival also much concerned with particular folkways (specifically of the Merjan culture, more immediately threatened by modernization), “smoke” refers to the reminiscences of the bereaved, candid reflections on the deceased. Miron, a paper-mill owner whose wife has just died, “smokes” to his passenger-side companion intermittently by telling stories about his marriage. In a similarly modest fashion the smoke that closes out Le Quattro volte memorializes the goat herder, the goat, and the tree under which the animal once took refuge, but it’s also composed of them, elements dissipated, for a moment, before their next reconstitution. As does Silent Souls, which features infinitely beset characters who flirt with the idea of drowning themselves to attain immortality underwater, Le Quattro volte ends with a moment of suspension—death as reprieve, rebirth, and reducing to the elements. The appearance of both films at this year’s festival suggests we haven’t seen the last of international filmmakers overlaying their formally austere art cinema with a veneer of mysticism ostensibly derived from ancient traditions.

But if there is something slightly biology-for-poets-ish about Le Quattro volte, Frammartino deserves a great deal of credit for constantly grounding his film in the elements, for slowly and quietly teasing a Pythagorean story out of the landscape rather than imposing one on it. The film is less a highly structured New Age-y formal stunt (like something along the lines of David Mitchell’s similarly genre-spanning novel Cloud Atlas) than a work that’s resolutely of the earth, paying homage to Calabrian traditions of religion, community, and work. And Frammartino shows how this particular way of life operates according to a more universal rhythm of death, decay, and rebirth. Watching Le Quattro volte, which also might stand for the four seasons, often feels like looking behind the face of a clock, seeing the contributions of many smaller revolutions to the big one.