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Le Quattro Volte

Le Quattro Volte, a painterly evocation of the Pythagorian maxim – ‘Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another…thus we must know ourselves four times’ – is an exquisite, often very funny, fearless and masterly example of contemplative cinema with a grand, poetic vision.

Set in Calabria, a predictably astonishing mountainous region in Italy, Le Quattro Volte is a moving odyssey taking in the ‘four stages’ of metempsychosis. Repeated bass-whumps paddle-slapped from a kiln form a disquieting introduction to this strange but alluring, quiet but loud exploration of a soul’s travel through fleeting guises, from which we undergo a powerfully conceived shedding of successive skins that’s both cumulatively affecting and as wordlessly articulate as you could hope from a dialogue-free 88 minutes.

For long periods, everything unfolds within the still frame: all bustle involves goats herded through Monet-esque bucolia by our nameless early protagonist, an old man with a nagging cough. Empty frames are slowly populated by cows heading towards the camera from the middle distance, the only sound the tinkling of their bells as they trot through a field. The old man sits in the grass at one point, an insect traversing his face, before gently willing it away. The dwindled sounds of quiet human occupation punctuate the slow slip of time; we are led into an inexorable meditative state, in which, as the old man’s downward fixation during a moment of repose as he contemplates something impossible to fathom, but which is clearly of a melancholy nature, inevitably leads us to ponder the old questions. It’s the films great victory that this ends up provoking gladdened, not grim, musings upon timelessness and the moments on Earth we get as a profound gift, not a tantalising glimpse of maddening futility. This is an emancipated but wilfully earthbound film.

Our elderly protagonist, who clouds a nightly glass of water with a murky, paper-enfolded substance (which we discover as effulgent-swirl dust sweepings from the local church floor, blessed and carefully wrapped by a woman of uncertain identity, in exchange for goat milk), spoon-mixes and gulps it, is thwarted in this pre-sleep dietary ritual; he has mislaid the mysteriously-propertied particles and clambers out of bed hurriedly to lamplit empty streets and unanswered knocks on the knuckle-muffling doors of the church.

Then there’s the dog who, at first unsuccessfully, initiates some comedic narrative momentum with a well-judged removal of a brick keeping a small truck from rolling down a steep decline…

…which leads to our finding the old man (literally) breathing his last as his flock congregates and observes this temporary end of the cycle. Here’s one of those transcendental cinema moments that you wait for and experience seldom: a bizarre, unpredictable but beguiling interruption that seems instantly iconic and is. You’d be surprised how stirring a clomping crowd of goats rattling and scuffling around a sunlit rustic hovel could be.

What follows includes the brief life and times of a charming, doomed kid – director Michelangelo Frammartino managing to render an involving vignette with well-chosen encapsulations of delightful naivety – whose straying wintry end fathoms a soul’s relocation into the large tree under which the kid succumbs, which we see, during the following spring, felled amidst chainsaw-backed whoops and transported to a village where it will form the centrepiece to a local celebration, the pared, savagely pruned and honed result a much-cheered travesty. From this the plummeted tree is hacked into segments and, ultimately, heads back to the darkness of the percussively pummelled kiln as charcoal. This entire procession has the feel of quiet, reverent inevitability.

So we’re back where we started; the soul awaits another sequence upon which to tether itself. Lives have fallen but there is a poignant sense that nothing has been lost – the slow accretion of events and moments amidst quiet lives being their own reward, for both viewer and each of the ‘four’ strands forming each focal point during this peculiar, magical voyage.

The camera, still as it is, quietly indicts and marvels throughout at the scenes that occur; it’s a bemused witness to curious life. It’s an omniscient, sentient, stilled being moored to beatific vantage points, observing time’s infinitesimal wear on the belligerent landscape and it’s much harsher, swifter sway on everything living within it. Concurrently, the constant lack of camera intervention may speak of maddened impotence, or messianic distance. Things happen, the director says, souls venture, life thrives quietly, in myriad transmigrative forms and guises, from human to animal to vegetable to mineral. That is all. The onus is on the viewer as to the meaning, the weight, of that. Frammartino does not feel the need to intervene or affect, other than with the occasional close-up, which, in such a glacial, distanced context, is extraordinarily powerful. One thinks at different points of Ozu, Tarr, Tati, Chabrol, Bunuel. The frame, once set, contains a world and doesn’t need to derive one. You must dwell in it and acclimatise rather than wait for its emphasis. It all depends whether that’s enough for you. Some films give you nothing and do all your work. This is very much the opposite, and, given the attention it demands, more than rewards you.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 28, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    It’s remarkable the reviews this has had, including yours. It sounds like it should be incredibly dull, but plainly isn’t.

    Ozu, Tarr, Tati, Chabrol, Bunuel. Shameful how many of those I’ve not seen.

  2. June 29, 2011 at 10:25 am

    It is a giddy landslide for this, isn’t it? And fully deserved. I think that it’s just so different has been the one specific reason for the mass of plaudits. If a slew of similar films were to simultaneously arrive I daresay the response would’ve been less unanimous.

    Not remotely shameful: one could argue you’re saving them for precisely the right moment! Chabrol didn’t do anything for me when I was early twenties, but then later it’s different of course. Monsieur Hulot mystified me first time round: second time round I thought it was amazing. Werkmeister is a masterpiece that’s probably far too influential. Bunuel: what to say? The Obscure Object Of Desire is completely magnificent. I’ll leave it at that. And Ozu is the best of the lot.

    PS I’m reading The Long Goodbye. I imagine you might be the man to speak to there…..

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