Saturday 28 May 2011

Resurrection shuffle: "Le Quattro Volte"

Some films are like very little else you've seen. Cannes 2010 had two of them: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee..., and Michelangelo Frammartino's sui generis charmer Le Quattro Volte, which opens more or less as a parody of the Highfalutin Art Movie - a realist study of a goatherd with a bad cough - only to transform (and that is the right word) into its own thing, or things, entirely. As the title (English translation: The Four Times) hints, what we have here is a narrative relay team running a sort of 4x2000ft of celluloid around a rustic Italian village.

When the shepherd perishes, we follow the progress of one of his more inquisitive goats into the world - and yes, let me repeat that, it's a non-animated film where a goat occupies centre-frame for twenty or so minutes, much as, say, Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf did in The Hours. Eventually, we pass from the goat to the story of the tree the goat once sought shelter in, which - displaced from its home - comes to assume a whole new identity (I'm not making this up); then the tree, too, goes to its grave in fiery circumstances, only to be born again. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Suffice to say, it's an odd hybrid, this: part circle of life treatise, part Jacques Tati comedy. Frammartino's achievement lies in how he holds these diverse elements in equilibrium. Le Quattro Volte manages to be funny and quietly profound at the same time, getting us to both laugh at and ponder the nature and character of the things around us. It's unmistakably a Catholic film, placing its dramatic emphasis on death and transfiguration, and climaxing with the plume of white smoke traditionally employed by the Vatican to show somebody's home; yet it's also a supremely catholic film, summoning up other, more secular belief systems, connections, ways of looking at the world.

Its field of inquiry may be the vast cosmic mysteries of existence, but Frammartino is drawn to smaller items of interest: dust motes suspended in the air of the chapel the goatherder visits, ants scrabbling around in the dirt. Part of the film looks to be concerned with what happens when lids come off and gates are left open: this much is clear from the remarkable (and much-discussed) central set-piece, apparently filmed without virtual enhancement, involving the goatherd's dog, a truck with a dodgy handbrake, and a processing Passion play. (The Easter backdrop further underlines the theme of resurrection.) In a later sequence, we watch a local ritual that sees one of the villagers shimmying a hundred or so feet up the tree, now relocated to the town square. No stuntmen here - like much else in Frammartino's film, it's real life and death stuff.

I don't think Le Quattro Volte quite reaches the extraordinary heights of Uncle Boonmee..., which really did seem to me like the universe in a strip of celluloid, but it's a film full of minor miracles, not least the precision turns the director gets from his notionally uncontrollable, non-human performers. Clearly the dogs and goats are destined for the lion's share of the plaudits, but those ants also prove a well-drilled unit, and look out for the small but telling contribution from a potful of mountain snails, enjoying what's easily the species' most prominent billing since the days of Peter Greenaway: as previously untapped screen talent goes, you might just call them all naturals.

Le Quattro Volte is on release in selected cinemas.

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