The endlessly cyclical nature of life is depicted as four different stories in a sleepy Italian village.
Le Quattro Volte, a film from 2010 by Michelangelo Frammertino, is like a vision of an ancient world, although the story takes place in our century. I call it a story, but it has more of the quality of myth.
The slow rhythm of daily life for an old goat herder in Calabria is conveyed superbly and with precise meditative attention. It’s a life of routine, which the old man, who is in bad health, endures without regret. Calabria is the poorest region in Italy, the part in the south that looks like the toe of a boot on the map—rugged hilly, and mountainous. The goat herder’s village in the film is perched on top of a hill, with rustic architecture that looks like we’re still in the Middle Ages. The goats are in a pen at the town limits, as the road out snakes downward. Every day he walks steadily to the pen, rouses the herd, and then leads them out and into the surrounding hills and meadows. While they feed on grass and other plants, he sits quietly, sometimes dozing off. With him is a shepherd dog, a border collie, who knows exactly how to lead the goats where the herder wants them. As the film immerses us in the steady, repetitive life in this rural area, we notice the unspoken bond between the man and the dog, and in fact with the goats as well. All is expressed more in grunts and sighs than in words. I tried to find the subtitle function on the Blu Ray I was watching, and I realized that there were no subtitles, because so very little is said during the movie that you don’t need them. Silence itself is almost a major character. Outside of the credits, there’s no musical score. Instead, the outstanding sound design presents all the little sounds of the country—the wind and the animals—in all the complexity they reveal in nature.
The title of the film, Le Quattro Volte, means The Four Times. Why is that? We start to find out when our attention leaves the goatherd and focuses on a little newborn goat. Now, the story, if we can call it that, is all about this one tiny being and his daily actions and struggles living in the herd. The gentle beauty we’ve experienced shows another side: the harsh necessities of survival, depicted in the most elemental and heart-rending way when the baby goat gets separated from the others and wanders about crying for help, finally resting, all tired out, beneath a tall tree. The tree is now the main character, and we are shown its life and presence, the waving of branches and rustling of leaves, and once again an eternal quiet at the heart of life. Suddenly it’s winter. Snow covers the ground. Men chop down the tree, and take it to town. Now it’s an inanimate object, and they use it as part of a holiday celebration. After that, it’s burned, turned into charcoal, and becomes part of a large kiln carefully built and operated by the villagers.
The four times are four lives: human, animal, vegetable, and mineral. The idea that the mineral also has a kind of life is part of an ancient world view in which everything, animate or not, is filled with spirit. Frammertino was inspired by the legend that the philosopher Pythagoras claimed to remember living four lives. The doctrine is called metempsychosis, but the movie isn’t teaching a doctrine—it’s just inspired by this idea of transmigrating souls to envision nature subjectively, as being a person, a goat, a tree, a piece of charcoal. The experience of watching Le Quattro Volte is like nothing else in cinema. It’s a film of spiritual sublimity.