Le Quattro Volte

February 22, 2013

I’ve been honoured to periodically provide enrichment courses for sixth-formers at a local school — writing to digital media to film appreciation.

The last course at an all-girls school was a four-part module reading films.  Even given limited time, constraints of film ratings, and in light of whole university programmes devoted to Film Studies, I was still dizzied by my options.

Should I show “Melancholia”, a beautiful but apocalyptic sci-fi film about the end of the world?

How about “Of Gods and Men”, a spiritually transcendent film about courage and faith in a group of French Cisterian Trappist monks?

Terrence Mallick’s “Tree of Life” might stump the students a little too much.

“Young Adult” would have been fabulously instructive for the girls, but its film rating dropped it out.

I took recommendations from everyone I knew.

And then I saw “Le Quattro Volte.”  Slam on the brakes!

Beautiful, meditative, and ineffable, a film written and directed by Italian photographer and video installation artist Michaelangelo Frammartino, Le Quattro Volte ticked all the right boxes. It would:

– Challenge notions of who or what a protagonist can be

– Invite the students to analyse special qualities of a films without dialogue

– Focus attention on 1-2 specific film-making technique (mise-en-scene and camera angles)

Before I say anything more, spoiler alert: yes, it is a magnificent film — I have officially seen it 7 times now — but! It’s a film you should regard as a unique puzzle whose pieces only sloooooowly come together. It could all make sense while you’re watching the film, or maybe days later connections are madewhen your subconscious pulls together threads.

Give it time.

(Spoiler, in next paragraph!)

Set in Italy’s mountainous region of Calabria, “Le Quattro Volte” means ‘ the four parts.’ It is based on ideas from the Italian mathematician, scientist and philosopher Pythagoras — that is, the idea that our souls pass through four stages.  It follows the path of a humble goat herder’s soul, as it passes from human to animal to vegetable to mineral.

It is a film about mortality but there is nothing grim about the film — in fact, there is charm, absurdity, and good humour.  (The goat herder’s dog won a Cannes Dog Award for its comedic timing!) Sound in the film is reduced but very meaningful: we hear goat bells, church bells, goat bleats, and the patting down of the coal burning pile in a way that sounds like a beating heart. Every scene, every colour, every sound takes on significant meaning.

Truly, I should watch it an 8th time.

Every scene — be it of snails, chimney smoke, the stone village — is disciplined and sophisticated, beautiful and carefully considered: the landscape and more intimate vignettes look like paintings, especially since the camera moves so very little, capturing long static moments.  And every captured moment is so tightly wound to the philosophical theme of man’s journey through different elements.

The girls were great sports — they laughed, they sighed, and they were often quiet as they drank in what was clearly a new type of art. Not a chick-flick nor action film, it challenged their notions of what a film could be. For a film of infinite meaning and understatement, in which even the landscape is protagonist, Le Quattro Volte is worth putting on your film list.

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