April 24, 2011

Movie Spoiler: Le Quattro Volte

By Giovanni di Napoli

Yesterday I took in a matinée at the Quad Cinema in the heart of Greenwich Village and finally saw the fascinating avant-garde Le Quattro Volte by Calabrese director Michelangelo Frammartino. Set in the idyllic town of Caulonia, perched high in the remote Serre range of Calabria, the film is based on the Pythagorean view of transmigration, where one's soul passes through four successive lives—human, animal, plant and mineral.

Pythagoras, of course, was a Greek philosopher and mathematician from Samos who settled in Croton, a Hellenic colony in Southern Italy, during the 6th century BC. He founded an influential school and is best remembered for his contributions to mathematics, particularly the Pythagorean theorem.

The film begins with an elderly shepherd, played by Giuseppe Fuda, attending his flock of goats. With the help of his faithful dog he grazes his animals across the picturesque hills surrounding the town. The old goat herder lives a simple pastoral life surviving on snails and his livestock. I don't want to give too much away, but the dog's antics during the town's Passion play is priceless and perhaps the movies most memorable scene. Except for the man's unremitting cough and the bleating animals, there is virtually no dialogue in the film.

Ailing, the solitary figure drinks diluted dust from the floor of the Chiesa dell'Immacolata each night before bed. He is one of the few remaining people who still believes in the magical properties of church dust. With an air of secrecy, the shepherd trades a bottle of fresh goat milk for a packet of powdery "medicine" with the church's cleaning lady. One night before going to sleep he discovers that he lost his package and heads to the church for more. Failing to acquire the therapeutic dirt because the building is closed, the superstitious old-man returns to his bed.

Coincidently(?), the shepherd passes away in his sleep. A small funeral procession solemnly carries his coffin to the chiesa to be interred in a mausoleum. As the tomb is sealed the screen turns black, but eerily we can still hear his heart beating.

The story quickly shifts to goats. The second episode starts with the birth of a kid falling from his mother's womb into a puddle of afterbirth. We witness the newborn's first steps and feeding, then eventually to some skittish roughhousing with the other newborn kids. When old enough he is brought out to pasture, but falling into a ditch he is separated from the flock. Wandering aimlessly across the countryside in search of the herd, the lost animal takes shelter under a towering fur tree, where he presumably dies.

After a montage of the majestic fur standing through the seasons, it is cut down and hauled off to Alessandria del Carretto by townspeople for the annual Pita festivities, an ancient pagan fertility rite associated with spring. With great fanfare, wine and the sounds of the zampogna, the tree is ritually shorn and raised upright in the town's square. Sharing many similarities with the Il Maggio festival of Accettura in the Lucanian province of Metera the celebration undoubtedly has common origins. Traditionally goats were hoisted up the tree so marksmen could shoot them, spraying blood down on the revelers. Today however, local products adorn the treetop and daring young men scale the Pita for prizes. At the end of the festivities it is toppled, and cheering villagers rush to get a sprig for good luck.

The fourth and final episode depicts the transmigration from plant to mineral. In it we see the felled tree chopped up and hauled away by local coalmen. The process of making carbonized vegetable matter is an old technique that dates back centuries and—thanks to the rapid industrialization of Italy—has led to the deforestation of large parts of Calabria's ancient woodlands. Lumber is neatly piled into mounds then covered with straw and turf. In a hole in the roof the pile is fired, then sealed. The coalmen keep watch for any cracks or leaks and plug up the holes with more soil. Heated in the absence of air the wood becomes charcoal, thus completing the cycles of life. The ppoiata, or parcel, is then delivered to their customers in Caulonia.

The film is about 88 minutes long. It won many awards, including the 2010 Europa Cinemas Label as best European film in Cannes Directors' Fortnight. It certainly isn't for everyone, but for someone like me who is fascinated with our Southern Italian ancestral folkways and dying cultural traditions it is a must see. When it finally becomes available, Le Quattro Volte will definitely be part of my DVD collection.

Photos courtesy of Lorber Films