Terrence Malick’s grand ambition for his film, The Tree of Life, is to look at man’s connection to the universe. It begins with a somewhat operatic “overture” – 20 minutes of beautiful, sometimes abstract images and music, portraying the birth of the universe.
Le Quattro Volte, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino’s magical, most deceptively simple film, stands in unique contrast. It lacks the grand concept and vision of Tree of Life — but a beautiful film it is. And that beauty is in the detail — the small and quiet moments of ordinary life in a remote village — largely left behind by industrialized civilization. The actors are all non-professionals, and the film has no dialogue.
Le Quattro Volte is about this small village in Calabria, an old man, his incredible dog and his goats. The old man dies, about midway through the film — Life continues — and not much else happens. Yet, I remember experiencing the film a year-and-a-half ago at the Cannes Film Festival, and I recall the terrible anxiety that gripped me over what would happen to the dog. Equally terrifying was the moment when the goats, left unattended, got into the old man’s house, and one goat, stupidly gets itself trapped on top of a kitchen table.
Those of us lucky enough to survive the acquisitiveness of youth, now know that less is always more. Le Quattro Volte embodies this as elegantly and with as much quiet power as a Kazimir Malevich painting.
We first encounter the old man as he rests under a tree, barely tending his goats. With his dog’s help, he returns to his village. When we later see the man in the old local church, he’s gathering dust. But he eats the dust, believing it to be sanctified and a cure for his illness.
After the old man’s death and burial, the scene shifts: a baby goat drops from its mother’s womb. Months later, the kid gets lost in a ditch, and panicked and bleating, seeks shelter underneath a large fir tree. But nature is unforgiving, and as the seasons turn from winter to spring — the cycle of life continues — and villagers cut down the huge tree and move it to the village to create a stripped pole. It becomes the object of a pole-climbing rite that suggests the villagers’ not-too-distant pagan past. The film ends as the villagers work to turn the wood into coal.
One humorous moment is when the dog pulls out a wooden log serving as a brace from underneath a truck parked on a small hill by the old man’s house setting an unlikely set of sequences into motion.
These sequences are undramatic and simplistic. But great filmmakers and artists allow us to see what we already know with new eyes. We know that life is the eternal cycle of birth, death, and new birth. This cycle contains for us the possibility of hope, renewal, and resurrection. Yet in today’s age — this cycle seems far removed. It’s been industrialized, mechanized, and polluted — perverted and unrecognizable to many — a process with which we have little physical connection.
Le Quattro Volte — the title of the film means something like “The Four Times” — reclaims this magical territory, and re-imagines for us the elegant linearity of this harmonious cycle. For Frammartino — to truly live — and feel connected to nature’s primal forces — is as much a privilege as to have one’s body after death reclaimed by that nature — from dust to dust — to restoration and new birth…
Milos Stehlik’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multi-media, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ. His reviews air on Fridays.
Trailer for Le Quattro Volte
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