If we believe the adage that the wish to climb a mountain comes about just because it’s there, perhaps it follows, not to be too glib about it, that a cave explorer mapping a hole in the ground does so because it’s not. Notions of absence — not just of solid ground, but of light and of life — as well as oppositions of up and down, ephemeral and eternal, high and low, infuse Michelangelo Frammartino’s “Il Buco” (“The Hole”), a docufiction that tenderly, wordlessly and rather too obliquely recreates a 1961 speleological expedition to measure the depth of an unexplored crevasse in Italy’s Calabria region.
As the first beautiful image, in a film composed entirely of beautiful images, fades slowly in, lagging behind the sound of chirruping crickets that faintly echo down from above, it’s like having your eyes adjust to sudden darkness. We are inside the hole, looking up from where the solidly present walls of the cave translate into one such absence — the black negative space of the image — and the white, bright, empty sky beyond looks like a living shape. In fact, it looks rather like the Batman insignia, bar the incurious cows who come to peer briefly down at us from its edges, their cowbells tinkling like wind chimes.
Looking across the Pollino plateau where the hole is located, there’s an elderly shepherd (Paolo Cossi) his tanned brow as furrowed as the ridged bark of the tree next to which he is perched, impossibly still and vertical on the steep hillside. Laid out before him is a vista so vast that the spinning of the earth is perceptible in how the shade creeps down the far-off slopes, and how clouds cast tiny shadows on the valley floor. Renato Berta’s landscape camerawork is extraordinarily well-attuned to the glories of this little-touristed region.
Soon, there arrives a party of young speleologists, to set up camp by the mouth of the abyss. But if the intrusion of these out-of-towners into this bucolic Calabrian idyll sets up the expectation of some sort of dramatic conflict, none is forthcoming. Frammartino deliberately — and ultimately frustratingly — chooses to keep the explorers at arms’ length, usually shooting them from far away, reducing their fireside chatter and cave-side communiqués to indistinct murmurings that carry as little meaning to us as the guttural calls the shepherd makes to his livestock.
Still, as the expedition progresses, and as Berta’s camera is sent ever deeper into the farthest reaches of the hole, where the images are lit only by helmet torches and sometimes the burning pages of magazines sent twirling down to the next ridge, a vague parallel does emerge. The shepherd falls ill, and as he is nursed by his companions, the dripping of water into his mouth from a cloth mimics the rivulets of water that run down the cave walls and collect in little pools on it natural platforms. The twitching of a vein in his hand recalls the progress of the troupe of spelunkers through the narrow chasm and the scale map of its interior that one of their number is painstakingly drawing. And a doctor shining a light into his sightless eyes explicitly evokes the flashlight beams they use to pierce the inky blackness below.
Less successful is the attempt to contextualize the story within the social landscape of 1960s Italy, when the national economic boom was at its height. The only dialogue comes from a television report about the building of Milan’s Pirelli building, which was being completed around the same time, but if there’s a point being made beyond the irony of a skyscraper being built in the urban, wealthy North at the same times as a cave was being measured in the rural, poor South, it gets lost within all the lovely imagery and Simone Paolo Olivero’s superbly evocative sound design. Similarly, the painstaking 1960s styling — classic canvas tents, old-style footballs and magazines featuring Sophia Loren and JFK — feels effortful to the point of contrived, when the film unfolds at a rhythm that feels more like it should be measured in geological time than mere decades.
Frammartino’s last feature, “Le Quattro Volte” was also an achingly beautiful, exceptionally slow work featuring a cast of non-professional humans and remarkably well-wrangled animals (the cows, handsome horses, and patient donkeys here are in many ways more expressive than their human counterparts). But that film found in its empty spaces and considered longueurs a gorgeous kind of beyond, as it dealt in the idea of the soul’s reincarnation through animal, plant and mineral forms. By contrast, here, there is nothing beyond; there is only the anticlimactic disappointment of finally reaching the puddled bottom of the cave and the prospect of the long climb back up. It is the point — and also the disappointment — of “Il Buco,” that there is at its heart a hole.