If you got the Tree of Life (unlike Sean Penn), time now to upgrade to Le quattro volte. The film may be from Italy, but you need only know the language of images to understand the film, which is nothing less than profound in expressing man’s connection with nature and the earth without relying on spoken or written language. Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino deliberately omits subtitles for the length of the hour-and-a-half film. When the inhabitants of the small Italian village where the film takes place speak, they speak from a distance, far enough away from the camera to make it impossible to see facial features. The only person given full face time is an old goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) who only coughs, apparently struggling with what will soon be revealed as his dying breaths.
The film is so delightful as a subjective experience (you will have to bring something to it to get something out of it), it feels like giving away spoilers to describe anything that happens within it. Suffice it to say, in Le quattro volte life begins with death, perpetuating in a cycle that goes so far as to express disintegration into the air. It is a sublime statement that only words will cheapen (maybe that’s why this review will be brief).
Those who find no plot in the film are missing the forest for the trees. In my experience appreciating abstract and experimental films, I have never seen a film without literal narrative that still manages to tell a story so concrete yet profound by purely associative images. The film’s statements are indeed clear despite the lack of literal cue signs and feels far from an abstract work. If anything, I would call this film down to earth in a purer sense than most Hollywood films.
If you can think, you can make out the film’s statement and find entertainment value, lest you fear you are paying for a cinematic experience to watch paint dry. Despite not having dialogue or even a musical score, the film still has moments of suspense and even slapstick. The only active and controlling aspect of narrative is the camera and the splices between the sequences. Frammartino uses placement and rare pans and, on one occasion, focus effects, to generate genuine moments of intrigue.
The film does nothing sexy or flashy. Not that there is anything wrong with films that do it (go see Drive or, heck, even the James Bond film Quantum of Solace for well-done sexy/flashy work). But this is life on earth that people do not pause to respect often enough. This is romanticized dirt. There’s nothing over-the-top that takes your breath away. The film holds your attention to the movie itself.
The magic in Le quattro volte lies in the gaps or edit splices. It’s all about the associations and the bigger picture that results. There are some key moments in the film where Frammartino uses slow fades to dark to mark the cyclical changes referred to in the title (literally translated in English, the film’s title means “the Four Turns”). The first of these is probably the most startling, and even includes a heartbeat.
Sound also plays an important role in the film, so do not expect a silent movie, which leans on the association of images for its story-telling, with music only adding decoration or supplemental embellishment. The sounds of the village, the country and even voices—though they never say anything—still carry meaning. There are many details to take in with this film, but its brilliance is not in forcing it down the viewer’s throat. Le quattro volte is as close to a meditative experience, without dragging out the pace, as I have ever seen.
The paces of the frames are so deliberate that a viewer ready to exercise his or her associative skills and analytical mind will clearly understand the film’s agenda by simply knowing this is a movie concerned with the connections between life and death. Even better than that, just as the film does not feel forced, the more relaxed and prepared you are to just watch the film without over-thinking, the more you will get from it. It is indeed a grand statement that offers a profound insight on the fleeting presence of a man on earth. Like any spiritual experience worth having, words will only cheapen the film’s ultimate message, so I’ll pause here.
Le quattro volte is Unrated, runs 88 minutes and opens Sat., Jan. 21, at 4 p.m., in South Florida at Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned a blu-ray screener for the purposes of this review. It’s already available for purchase (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon), but, as always, those who have an opportunity to see it in the theater should do so.