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Le Quattro Volte

Adam Weymouth

Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino
Certificate U, 88 mins


­Frammartino has attempted a bold and humble thing in Le Quattro Volte. Of the four lead roles, only one of them is human. Set in and around a hillside village in Calabria, southern Italy, the film begins by following an ailing goatherd as he tends to his flock, racked by a painful cough for which he takes once daily a folkloric medicine made from dust swept up in the village church.

One evening he finds he has lost his medicine, and unable to rouse anyone in the church, he passes away in the night. The film then shifts to follow the short life of an infant goat, before changing once again to fir tree which is felled, erected in the town square for the springtime celebrations and then turned into charcoal, and ultimately traces the journey of the charcoal itself, before it is ignited into fire.

A film that draws no distinction between its human and non-human characters is a refreshing and a disconcerting thing. There is some dialogue, but it is distant and half heard, and no different from the bleatings and the bells of the goats, or the wind that stirs the pine, or the metallic tinkling of the charcoal as it is shovelled into bags. The flock makes its way across a hillside, and later, filmed from the same position, a crowd of people does the same, equally indistinct at distance. Yet there is no slide into anthropomorphism. Instead we are made to turn our gaze upon ourselves, and question just what, if anything, makes people unique in the world.

Much of the film is shot from fixed camera positions, sometimes several metres above the ground, or half hidden behind a rock, or peering through the trees. On occasion we are left in total darkness, inside a tomb or amongst the stacks of logs as they smoulder into charcoal, listening to the far off rumblings outside. We wonder whose eyes we are seeing through, and often it seems to be the very earth itself, watching its own processes unfold. It is this, more than any individual character, that we come to identify with. Several times we see an ant, once crawling across the shepherd's face, then across the goat's face, then across the fissured and craggy bark of the fir tree. Others beings, it suggests, and the earth itself, make no distinction between the surfaces of this world, give no dominance to one life form or another. So why should we?

Ultimately it is a story of cycles, of seasons, of rituals, of birth and death. When the goatherd dies at Easter, and the next shot shows a goat in the first seconds of its life, the film seems to be developing a theme of resurrection. Yet when we then see that same goat perish beneath a tree, that tree felled and turned into charcoal, that charcoal reborn as fire, it begins to seem that there is also a wider vision of the interconnectedness of things. There are suggestions that people may be  changing these patterns, but they are altered by the non-human world too. Perhaps the modernisation of the farm will pass away as surely as the season. Or perhaps it is different. We are given no answers. But we are provided a different perspective from which to consider.

It is funny, wise, and beautifully shot. It allows humans to retain their dignity, whilst also putting them squarely in their place. It is a remarkable, and an important, achievement.

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