The shot begins with an overhead view of goats on the left side of the frame, a diagonal fence separating them from the road on the right. A group of men in Roman costumes pass under an archway, walking down the road; by the time a man bearing a cross joins them, you realize that it’s Easter. Then a dog follows, small in the frame, and people chasing it. The camera follows it down, then back uphill as it barks at a boy. In its chaotic hurry the dog unhooks the piece tying a truck to the wall. The truck starts rolling down toward the hill, gradually, slowly. The camera follows the dog downhill again, and as it’s moving we hear the off-screen sound of a crash. The dog runs back up to see goats pouring through the arch. Over the course of one shot, nature’s flooded the town; and when the film finally cuts, it’s to a goat on top of a table.
This point is explicitly made in the aforementioned long shot, a gag so carefully and precisely worked as to be worthy of Tati, but the point that Michelangelo Frommartino’s new film, Le Quattro Volte, makes continuously is that man and nature coexist all along. Bravura little set pieces aside, this is quiet, minimalist filmmaking. There’s not a single line of audible dialogue in the movie—that is, until you realize that the goat bleats, sheep bells, and sounds of wind blowing through the trees are the dialogue, and that they contain as much information as any human speech. The film’s action is minimal—that is, until you realize that the swaying of a tree’s branches can be dramatic in and of itself.
The film’s title in English means “the four times,” likely referring to the four seasons, but also to the four instances in which one soul is incarnated—first as an old shepherd, then as a goat, then as a tree, then as a gorgeous piece of a wood-and-dirt house, or perhaps a pluming curl of smoke. It’s not quite right to say that nature is a character in this movie, but more that characters keep finding new forms, shapes, and alignments to interact with each other in nature.
The images that Frammartino captures of this world are often gorgeous, whether the clear morning light shining onto a sheepskin or the iridescent green-and-yellow in a town square at night (all captured, thank heaven, on good-quality film stock, which allows for greater light and color variation than most video does—though that’s changing). The shots that Frammartino gets of the goats are simply amazing: Whether shoving each other off of cinderblocks or popping out of ditches to call for comrades, they put penguin actors to shame.
The goats also give the film its richest moments of humor, many of the jokes based on seeing them act more human than humans. Once the animals vanish, the visuals grow less inventive, turning more frequently to shots of trees swaying or men cutting them down. Slant’s Andrew Schenker appropriately compares these work scenes to those in the Argentinean film La Libertad, much of which consists of a man cutting wood. Schenker uses La Libertad to club Le Quattro Volte, though, with the claim that Le Quattro Volte rushes through the work, leaving the workers underdeveloped. Yet if Frammartino let the woodcutting play out in real time, he’d risk suggesting the workers as more powerful than the wood. I don’t think that the point is to show one object hurting another, but rather to give a frame in which different parts of the world interact.
This is modest, lower-case filmmaking—all things are connected, all life is continuous, the next film’s in half an hour. That movie might be one of the many other ghost stories showing at this year’s Festival—Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, or, most thematically synchronous, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Weerasethakul has described his film, in which people are reborn variously as monkey ghosts and talking catfish, as an elegy for cinema itself. It’s tempting to see all four reincarnation tales, all four of which were shot on film, as metaphors for the way in which we’re shifting from a film age to a digital one. We’re still communing with movies; they’ve just taken on different forms. And the form Le Quattro Volte takes is highly pleasurable.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.