I was instructed not to read anything about Le Quattro Volte before seeing it. This was clearly strategy on the part of my companion to get me to go at all. The film had come highly recommended to him by a trusted source, but any descriptive detail he could have relayed would have deterred me: no dialogue, lots of animals. But director Michelangelo Frammartino’s close visual attention to — and quiet dramatization of — Calabrian village life is actually thrilling.
The title, which translates to “The Four Times,” chronicles the final days of an ancient goatherd; the birth and first weeks of a fleecy kid; the sacrifice of a tree in a mysterious, local ceremony; and the involved and quite artful process of making charcoal. The elliptical structure (what we see first and last are hazy plumes of smoke emitted from a mound of burning wood) is even more effective for its focus on the carbon-rich, literally organic, sooty lumps — life, concentrated.
In keeping with the elemental culture it dramatizes, Le Quattro Volte subscribes to a kind of realist ideal that says that anyone can be a hero, if you only pay careful enough attention. Focusing on small gestures and granting authority to the oft-ignored isn’t a radical project, but Frammartino practices it with particularly elegant proportion. The goatherd’s hacking cough elicits irritation and sympathy in equal measure, as does the kid’s relentless bleating when he’s stuck in an excruciatingly shallow ravine. We watch the nonplussed faces of both man and animal as a fly quivers across them, undisturbed for minutes. Everything takes on a life worth observing. The goats in the barn develop unique personalities and are genuinely funny in their seemingly unmotivated behavior: balancing for no good reason on teetering cinderblocks and splitting off from the herd in severe right angles. Even a hacked-down tree and a charred pile of dirt, if given enough time in front of the camera, can be animated. Our threshold for theatrics adjusts surprisingly quickly.
Though the film makes no obvious attempt to obscure the time in which it’s set, the blue jeans that the townspeople wear, their motorcycles, their electrically lit homes — these all feel like anachronisms in an otherwise primeval world. When a procession of men dressed in traditional Roman costumes emerges from a winding lane, it takes a moment to reestablish that, yes, this is still contemporary Italy.
We timed it so that we could take the C straight to Penn Station after the film was over — we had to catch a train. But we were working within a slim margin, so we agreed to sneak out early if it got too close. It’s a testament to Frammartino’s pacing that this seemed like a terribly tragic recourse. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a film so thoroughly in spite of myself. Le Quattro Volte forgoes what I most value — humans communicating through language — and indulges what I would do just about anything to avoid: anthropomorphized animals. The film’s 88 minutes are wordless and lacking in any real climax or resolve. Still, leaving early would’ve meant missing some profound flicker or primal occurrence. We stayed through to the end and then rushed to grab a cab uptown. We made our train, and everyone on it looked like a goat, but in the very best way. They kind of have ever since, actually.