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Monday, September 20, 2010

Le quattro volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010)

It can be argued that all movies teach you how to watch them, but it's more true with some cases than with others. The fact that Michelangelo Frammartino's second feature is showing at the 2010 New York Film Festival without so much as a subtitle for its main title (it's referred to elsewhere by its English title, The Four Times) is the first hint that the story will be depicted in terms of non-verbal sound and image. As with Tati (clearly an inspiration - Mon oncle in particular), there is almost no dialogue, and what little we hear is of no importance whatsoever.

The shape of the film, according to the director's statement, is the reincarnation of a soul into four distinct forms: an elderly shepherd (with a deadly cough), a baby goat, a mighty tree, and, finally, charcoal for the village. In other words, man, animal, vegetable, and mineral. All of this plays out more elegantly and more organically than this schematic would suggest. Frammartino's panoramic views into and over the Calabrian village, as well as his intimate closeups into the same, vividly depict a harmonious balance between the four "elements"; an extension of an idea implicit in much of Tati that man is but an extra in his own movie.

To make an eighty-eight minute movie that depicts something as enormous as a sorta-Pagan view of the circle of life, with Roman Catholic orthodoxy nipping at its heels, sounds like a bit of a tall order, but Frammartino manages with a healthy dose of humor (there's an extraordinary sequence at the film's center, done in one take, the camera panning from a fixed position, that is a triumph both of comic timing and animal wrangling), as well as memorable sounds and images: the bleating of a newborn kid that sounds like the cry of a human boy, the building of the charcoal kiln in a sequence that recalls the bell-making in Andrei Rublev with its smoke over black earth.

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