In trying to check out some 2011-released films for a Top 10 list for Sound on Sight I came across Michelangelo Frammartino’s Cannes success, Le Quattro Volte, loosely translated as The Four Times. This is a very quiet film, with all dialogue spoken in passing and by minor characters. It’s still, metaphorical, but also very refreshingly unpretentious for an art-film. In many ways the various wide shots and use of a frame that extends far left and right reminds me of the enormous blocking in Tati’s classic (and one of my all-time favorites), Playtime.
There’s a plot in here, but more than follow a specific story with three acts and a full character arc, Frammartino, who also wrote the script, asks us to observe. A quiet shepherd lives in a small village. He moves slowly through his day, and about midway through the film, in an unassuming moment, dies. The film then shifts (to the “second time”) and follows a young sheep, just born. There are two more shifts (maybe predictably by that point) to a tree and a lump of coal, before the movie loops around full circle.
It’s a circle-of-life film, but, when compared to something as grandiose (and certainly frequently pretentious, despite its overwhelming beauty) like Cannes-winner The Tree of Life, plays more as rumination and meditation than soaring opera. It’s strange as a Terrence Malick fan to say that Frammartino’s film is superior, but its quietness and seeming lack of effort makes it exactly that. Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Le Quattro Volte is smart to spend more than 75% of its screen times with the first two subjects, and still keep human interaction in the background when lensing what could be its overly boring final subject matters – tree and coal.
But the most successful parts of Le Quattro Volte are when Frammartino’s frequently unmotivated camera (itself reminiscent of Pedro Costa’s), glides slowly around to take in what the village has to offer. A favorite part is a high angle shot that frames a pen with sheep in the lower portion, a road running across, and a narratively-important house at the top. It’s a flat shot because of its high angle, but Frammartino draws much depth from it by letting characters walk in and out. A car drives on-screen. From the opposite direction a nearly wordless recreation of Jesus’ march to calvary ensues. The moment is sans-religious comment. It’s simply played as village-tradition. People watch. A child runs after one of the actors. Off-screen a car crashes into the pen and the sheep run free. The horn from the play sounds after its actors are long in the distance and out of frame.
The shot, which I didn’t time but must be more than three minutes, is a perfectly-blocked look at the small clockwork of small life, where our subjective, privileged angle allows us to take it all in, God-like, but still doesn’t condescend the characters. It’s a look at the youth that our protagonist shepherd lacks, a metaphorical march towards death and supposed rebirth that mirrors the themes in the greater picture, and small comedy mixed into the observation.
Although the title and structure of this film remind the audience that it’s about these four stages of a life-cycle – human, animal, plant, mineral – the presentation actually makes it as much a film about a small village. Come to think of it, this also reminds me of a less-story driven Mon Oncle Antoine, in its vignette-stylings and insistence on a look at a collective way of life.
Some smart editing also moves Frammartino’s film along, including one hard cut from the death of the old man to the literal birth of a sheep. It’s a great example of forcing the audiences’ interpretation and of traditional montage: shot of death + shot of birth = rebirth.