Le Quattro Volte is not for the impatient. Even at 88 minutes, Michelangelo Frammartino’s “docu-essay” can be a challenge. It’s a curious meditation inspired by the Pythagorean theory of “fourfold transmigration,” the notion that a soul is passed from human to animal to vegetable to mineral.
This process is ostensibly captured via daily life in a remote Italian village, starting with an old goat herder who drinks church dust in an effort to cure his pesky cough. He’s not long for this world; when he dies, the screen goes black and the next scene is a calf being born. We watch the creature take its first steps and, heartbreakingly, become separated from its group when it can’t climb out of a small ditch. Eventually it lies down by a tree to die—fade to black again, and we’re looking at winter hills and a closeup of an ant on bark. It’s suddenly spring. Next comes the felling of a stately fir, which literally takes a village when its inhabitants drag it to and prop it back up in the town square. Finally we see stacks of chopped wood and twigs turned into a charcoal kiln, smoking wisps blowing in the always-rustling wind.
Le Quattro Volce is wordless but never silent, full of the sounds of nature going about its business, from the bleating of goats to the clanging of their cowbells to the chirping of crickets. The whole thing, one imagines, is supposed to evoke wonder and give witness to the cycle of life. The problem is that you might not get its central conceit of a soul passing through Pythagoras’ four stages unless you’ve read about it—and a successful film should make sense on its own, without requiring extracurricular work.
Though it has bright moments (that lost calf; goats that escape through a downed fence and make themselves at home in a herder’s shack), more often Frammartino leaves us wondering what exactly is going on (that herder has some odd habits). In the end, you’ll be less enlightened than relieved the experiment is over.