You don’t need to like goats to appreciate Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times)—a new Italian film opening this coming Friday, June 10th, at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas—but a degree of tolerance for Capra aegagrus hircus will help. The aroma of goat hangs heavy over director Michelangelo Frammatino’s film, so if you consider these humble creatures smelly, noisy, or burdened with unsettling gustatory habits, you should probably give it a miss.
Set deep in rustic Calabria, Italy, Le Quattro Volte is a unique drama with enough non-fiction elements to lend it an air of stark realism. The film has no story—at least, not in the traditional sense—but documents the day to day existence of the residents, human and otherwise, of a tiny hillside village.
The primary human character is an elderly goatherd who, we immediately discern, is not in the best of health. His constant coughing does not augur well, and his method of treatment—drinking a mixture of water and dust collected from the floor of the local church—suggests his best days are behind him. Indeed (spoiler ahead), the poor man barely outlives the film’s second reel.
Shortly after his demise a baby goat is born, suggesting perhaps that the goatherd has been reincarnated in a cute four-legged package wrapped in snowy white fur. If that is indeed the case, he is soon contending with a new set of travails: the little goat gets involved in the film’s major dramatic development as he gets stuck in a ditch and separated from the herd. Complications ensue.
There are other characters. The goatherd’s dog continues to punch the time-clock sans his master’s supervision. A group of men dressed as Roman centurions climb out of a truck and lead a religious procession. A tree is cut down, transported to the village, set upright, boldly (and pointlessly) scaled by someone, felled a second time, and then denuded by the locals.
I cannot possibly pretend to understand half of what transpires in this puzzling but oddly satisfying film. Does such a place, The Town That Time Forgot, still exist? If so, do its residents still carry on in such quasi-medieval fashion? Do they really still produce charcoal in a giant soil-covered woodpile?
Other than the occasional hearty and untranslated imprecation in Italian, Le Quattro Volte is completely free of dialogue. Happily, it doesn’t need any: the film’s foundation is the deeply beautiful cinematography of Andrea Locatelli, who captures the essence of the Calabrian countryside whilst also recording the exploits of the film’s animal ‘actors’. This is no small feat. You’ll marvel at how well goats can emote in the right situation and with sufficient motivation.
According to the film’s promotional material, Le Quattro Volte was ‘inspired by Pythagoras’s belief in four-fold transmigration’ (Pythagoras lived in Calabria during the 6th Century BCE). That’s as maybe, but I can say with some confidence that it displays the influence of Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 peasant epic L’albero degli zoccoli (Tree of Wooden Clogs). Unlike Olmi’s film, however, Le Quattro Volte contains no interspecies sex.
Other cinematic influences are evident. There are echoes of the still-life imagery of Chantal Akerman, the angular perspectives of German expressionism (check out the village’s crazy quilt layout), and most surprisingly of all the surrealism of Luis Buñuel. There’s a scene featuring ants that would be sit comfortably in Un Chien Andalou, and of course Buñuel’s El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) relies heavily on a herd (admittedly of sheep) to drive home its point. Whatever its influences, however, this Cannes Film Festival prize winner is a memorable experience for goat lovers and agnostics alike.
John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.