Le Quattro Volte, the nearly wordless second film from Italian director Michaelangelo Frammartino, compresses a year in a mountainous spot in the southern Italian region of Calabria into the length of a short feature. It’s a remote location, but Frammartino’s canny eye, wry humor, and careful sense of rhythm make it feel like the best possible spot to observe the workings of the world, from ashes to ashes. Literally: The film begins and ends with a group of men creating charcoal, then cycles through a series of connected vignettes filled with images of death and rebirth taken from everyday life in and around a centuries-old village.
Split into four sections, Le Quattro Volte at first follows an aging goatherd (Giuseppe Fuda) as he goes about the lonely business of tending his flock, aided only by a dog whose vivaciousness contrasts with the goatherd’s own failing health. Following a folk custom, Fuda mixes the dust from a church into his drinking water in an attempt to fend off illness. When he succumbs to the inevitable, the film shifts focus to a newborn goat before shifting twice more as it follows a circular path back to where it began.
Frammartino has suggested the concept of reincarnation factored into his conception of the film, but any mysticism here comes from earthy material. Frammartino uses long, carefully observed takes to capture the natural world and the way the same patterns keep erupting from beneath humanity’s attempts to impose order upon it. What sounds potentially tedious in bare description proves dynamic on the screen: An architect by training, Frammartino has a painter’s sense of how to use every portion of the frame meaningfully. But he also has a comic’s sense of how to put a gag together. In the film’s most memorable scene, a group of men dressed like Roman centurions arrive late for a reenactment of the Passion. As the procession passes by, a dog barks angrily at soldiers and the Savior alike as a group of goats watch indifferently before getting loose, wandering through town, and becoming a bunch of cloven-hoofed Monsieur Hulots.
Frammartino is so skilled at creating low-key observations of the junctures between human and animal life that that latter portions of Le Quattro Volte, which turn their attention elsewhere, can’t help but feel a little less spirited by comparison. But as the film rolls to its close and Frammartino casts some doubt as to whether the cycles of village life will roll on or wind down, it feels like a privilege to have visited such a little-traveled part of the world, and to have been shown so much while by watching it.