by Brian Barth
Le Quattro Volte, dir. Michaelangelo Frammartino (2011)
When A. O. Scott says that a film “reinvents the very act of perception,” you listen.
Michaelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte (2011), is the most transfixing and profound narrative I have seen in years. The film structures itself around the four modes of transmigration (an ancient model of reincarnation); a soul wanders from man, to animal, to vegetable, to mineral. An old man trades his goats milk for dust swept up in a church in order to delay his death. Eventually he passes, and we follow his process of transmigration. For such a simple story (that has no dialogue whatsoever), it might seem odd to commend the writing, but any filmmaker that can weave a riveting story while forcing the viewer only to watch understands screenwriting in its truest form. The camera does all the talking.
The cinematography is disturbingly objective: think Robert Gardner without the narration. After the first cycle, you actually start to feel like a spirit, witnessing humanity as a species and people as animals. We scan around the old town up in the mountains; Andrea Locatelli’s camera is often perched on top of houses, hills, steeples. We’re not serenely floating as much as hovering, with a nagging feeling of menace; the next second we’re shocked by the most suffocatingly subjective camera–we are buried in the center of a pile of ash, sealed into a stone tomb or built into a wooden conflagration. In the final stage, we are released. We are smoke and ash. We sweep over the forest where his favorite tree was, we brush the field where his goats fed and we snake through his old mountain town.
What this film capitalizes on so successfully is the simple pleasure of watching. Much like the beginning of There Will Be Blood or Wall-E, it’s comforting when a director forces you to watch. It’s an act of confidence: “I know what I’m doing, just let me show you.” Its effect in Le Quattro Volte is that and more. There are only a few things in the film that place us in time; otherwise this story could have happened hundreds of years ago. In the terms of transmigration, it absolutely has. It’s happening all the time.