Back in 2010, a small film of uncertain genre — was it documentary or drama, or something in between? — became the biggest word-of-mouth hit at the Cannes Film Festival. “Have you seen the goat film?” became a cheerful morning greeting between critics who usually just grunt at each other biliously about whatever has most recently annoyed them; here was something revelatory, something to get those sour old juices flowing.
“The goat film” was Le Quattro Volte, a film about an elderly goatherd living in a village in Calabria, his mischievous dog and the herd of goats who would chivvy him around, sometimes checking on him as if to make sure he hadn’t died yet. It was tranquil but melancholy, reverent but never sentimental. And it wasn’t like anything else.
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Now the director of the goat film, Michelangelo Frammartino, is at the Venice Film Festival with another magnificent pastoral, Il Buco — meaning, in our less mellifluous English, The Hole. The film recreates a 1961 speleological expedition to the Bifurto Abyss, a 687 meter deep sinkhole the director was taken to see while he was filming Le Quattro Volte. At ground level, he says, the hole was no more than “a meager cut in the ground.” Then the village mayor who was his guide, threw a stone down the entrance. No sound came back. “That lack of response,” he writes in his director’s statement in the festival program, “gave me a very strong emotion.”
That emotion infuses Il Buco, which follows the cavers descending on ropes and chain ladders on this journey to the center of the earth, burrowing into narrow clefts or crossing underground pools on blow-up rafts lowered into the shaft on long ropes. Frammartino’s camera also finds painterly beauty underground, using the golden flash of the cavers’ torches to illuminate folds in the rock walls in rich Renaissance shades of red, burnt sienna set against the blackest of shadows.
The explorers of 1961 he is commemorating were clearly impossibly brave and scientifically serious, but they also had each day’s events recorded by an artist in beautiful pen-and-wash sketches: there was a sepia romance to the project. Meanwhile, the life of the Calabrian peasant farmers above ground survives almost unchanged from an even earlier time.
Three elderly men are living in a hut near the hole while their cows graze their summer pastures. They call their beasts with whooping cries that are strikingly like the calls the cavers use to signal the need for a rope or warn those below that a sack of stuff is on its way down. There is no other dialogue, but you don’t miss it: the farmers and the explorers each have a sense of group purpose that is its own kind of communication.
Human and animal lives are constantly shown to be woven together. The cows nose around the cavers’ encampment while they are away, chewing speculatively on a couple of stray watercolors. A passing horse peers into a bivouac, then appears to think better of coming inside. The weather is just as alive. One moment we see the team bustling about their camp in the glinting light you only see in high mountains, next we will see the same meadows disappear under billowing cloud.
More than once, you will find yourself wondering how it is possible for a filmmaker to catch the spectacle of a mist rolling in, given it takes only a few seconds. The only way, of course, is to wait until it happens. Frammartino is very, very good at waiting. This is not necessarily a peaceful world — there is death, there is destruction, there is bitter weather — but he is at peace with it in all its different tempers. For those who can also be at peace watching a film with no dialogue and no story to speak of, it is a thing of wonder. Did you see the hole film? Yes, I did. It was great.