The substance of Le Quattro Volte is a life cycle in rural Italy -- Calabria, to be exact, where Pythagoras once spent some time working out his idea about the transmigration of the soul from human to animal to vegetable to mineral.
That idea is a good one for a movie, filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino must have figured, not at all worrying about how to make vegetables and minerals cinematically interesting. Come to think of it, even the human and animal elements in Le Quattro Volte might imply a tough sell. Anybody up for a dialogue-free, documentary-like movie about an old goatherd, dying?
Yes, please. This may seem radical by contrast to most of what else is playing on big screens now, but so much the better. In a season when lifeless artificial imagery has leeched the movies of their wonder, here's one that still dazzles just by paying attention to the texture of life. Frammartino's crucial insight is the recognition of how good cinema still is for getting away from it all, while simultaneously getting toward it. His approach is elemental, and he's made 88 riveting minutes out of smoke, goat-scruff, tree bark and church dust stirred into a bedside water glass. Indeed, maybe never on screen have a lone evergreen or a heap of charcoal been invested with such inner life. Let alone an old guy and his goats.
Frammartino and cinematographer Andrea Locatelli keep their well-placed camera at a respectful but inquisitive distance, stealing long glances at the intimate caress of natural light. They gather some offhandedly staggering imagery. The camera doesn't move much, except to behold occasional bits of astonishing choreography. The most essential of these involves an Easter parade (complete with Jesus bearing cross), an agitated herd dog and a broken fence. To say more might spoil it, but only because words are irrelevant.
After a few enchanted minutes of wondering whether all of this was planned or discovered, you can't help but admire Frammartino's command of silent-film syntax. It's not just in how, with wryly stoic humor, he faces down the grand mechanics of Mother Nature's clockwork. It's also in the editing, the deceptively casual structure. Le Quattro Volte summons the great animating force of the direct cut: Death becomes birth, one season becomes another, strange becomes familiar. It allows, too, the subtle energy of variation: Certain shots stand alone as magnificent, and when repeated with minor modulation become sublime.
Like all cerebral art-house fare, Frammartino's film will be subject to much reverential critique and earnest contextualizing. With its mystical consideration of mortality, it has a lot to unpack. But leave it packed and you'll still be amazed. Show it to little kids and amaze them too.
Speaking of kids, let us now discuss goat appreciation. I'm going to go out on a limb and announce that Le Quattro Volte contains some of the most beautifully photographed goats in the history of cinema. I mean, I don't know if there is a Goat Fancy magazine, but if there is, I am detecting special-issue fodder here.
You can see why these sweet stubborn beasts have been mainstays of our folklore, giving usefulness and amusement for millennia. Frammartino probably could have gotten away with a suggestion that staring into a goat face somehow gave Pythagoras his big idea in the first place. Wisely, though, he just leaves that open, like the gate through which the goats come running a couple of times, tumbling down an old stone staircase in a glorious, timeless goatvalanche.