Among the objects we’re asked to contemplate in Le Quattro Volte are men and goats, trees and charcoal. In Michelangelo Frammartino’s four-part film, all levels of life are granted equal emphasis—all part of the cycle of nature. And therein lies the problem: By framing his (human) non-actors in the same lengthy fixed-take shots as a young goat cavorting or leaves blowing in the breeze, they become just one more foreground figure in a shot whose exacting compositions are more academic than inspired. There’s certainly no shortage of contemplative static-camera films filling out the festival circuit, but at its worst, Frammartino’s movie plays like a parody of this popular approach.
A question to ask when approaching a work like Le Quattro Volte: What is it about the objects on screen that we’re being asked to contemplate? In the case of Frammartino’s human subjects, it’s either their decrepitude (the old man in the film’s first section) or their ability to perform a specific task (the men who cut down a tree and the others that reduce its wood to charcoal in the third and fourth sections). But simply emphasizing the sorry state of a human figure—by, for example, fixing the old man in tight close-up while he swats a fly from his withered face—is not sufficient. Watching as Frammartino frames the old man’s wretchedness against his denuded palette of browns, grays, and muted greens is an experience as unenlightening as it is potentially offensive in its reductive engagement with humanity. Unlike the down-and-out figures given the fixed-take treatment in say, Pedro Costa’s work, this old man is too worn down to be anything but a passive victim.
Similarly, in Frammartino’s rush to move from one section to the other, the men who cut and carve the trees and those who burn the logs into coal are given insufficient screen time to enact their jobs in any meaningful way. The film seems to want to focus on process, but unlike Lisandro Alonso’s La Libertad where the director allows his woodcutter’s tasks to take center stage and unfold in real time, Frammartino keeps his distance from his characters and speeds things along with edits that elide certain steps in the process. The result is a compromise between a minimal narrative momentum and a desire to depict an activity in detail that satisfies on neither level.
Le Quattro Volte benefits from a minor fillip at the end of the first and the beginning of the second section, thanks to a series of scenes involving a group of goats and a herding dog. Much of this animal footage amounts to little more than a round of stupid pet tricks, as when a hound disrupts a Roman passion play marching through the streets of the town before dislodging a parked truck, which in turn breaks through a fence, and frees a herd of goats who then begin their own processional (all in one extended, masterfully staged take). But there’s an undeniable documentary interest to much of the zoological footage, present, for example, in shots of a mother goat licking the amniotic fluid off her newborn kid, while the film’s most compelling narrative comes courtesy of a young goat that gets stuck in a ditch as the rest of the herd moves ahead without him. Still, it’s telling that even when he’s hit on quality footage, Frammartino feels the constant need to cut away to some banal shot of the treetops to remind us of his film’s allegedly deep immersion in the cycles of nature.
This ecological theme receives its strictest treatment in the film’s structure, a roundelay which moves us from one set of figures to another, marked off by fades to black. In the most explicit expression of natural continuation, the movie’s first section ends with the death of the old man; when Frammartino fades back in, we see a baby goat popping out of its mother’s birth canal. Similarly, the director repeats a number of shots, the most frequent being an overhead view of the rural farming town where the film takes place and which encompasses both the old man’s house and the pen where the goats are kept. This shot dominates the film’s first section, and while it disappears in the middle, it returns right on cue at the movie’s conclusion. But despite the director’s efforts to maintain continuity between the sections, the individual moments seem both too disparate and too slight to be effective. To watch a man passively dying for half an hour, check in on a few animals cavorting for the same amount of time and then observe men at work (and briefly at play) for another 30 is neither satisfying as isolated activity nor as cumulative visual experience. Dull-minded and aesthetically pleasing only in the most academic of ways, Le Quattro Volte adds up exactly to the sum of its parts. And given the quality of those individual parts, that ain’t saying much.