Here’s one of those typically obscure European arthouse films with no discernible plot, no dialogue and an overarching reverence for the beauty and purity of the natural world. Le Quattro Volte is set in a remote southern Italian village where it follows, in sequence, an old farm-herd, his goats, a tree and some charcoal – the human, animal, vegetable and mineral indicated by the title. Entering the cinema, I was aware of the possibility it might annoy and/or bore me – but in fact I was charmed by its idiosyncrasies and surprising wit. I can imagine it being quite therapeutic if you needed a break from a busy weekend.
It goes without saying that it is beautifully shot, and also that many of these shots are pretty long and still. But with a variety of interesting things to look at (‘looking at’ is certainly the dominant mode here) one’s patience is never seriously tried. One close-up, for instance, show us an ant crawling across the face of the goat-herd who has stopped to relieve himself in a field – he has one attempt at swiping it away, then gives up – and it’s simply great to watch. I’m not sure why.
It’s also an early indication of how nature is seeped into the very bones of this film – and is its pervading force. Whenever someone opens a stable door, animals pour out like water from a tap. Soon, the old man begins to die, coinciding with a virtuoso sequence in which his sheepdog inadvertently releases the goats from their pen. Out they spill, some of them using their newfound freedom to explore nearby houses (which leads to the memorable shot above). These home-invading goats are the man’s final vision.
By this point I was thinking a number of things, including: it’s funny how we think of goats as such ungainly creatures, yet they are in fact so dexterous. Also, how did director Michelangelo Frammartino get the animals to do some of these things? The sheepdog is an especially impressive performer – presumably either incredibly well-trained (which would jar with the ‘documentary’ feel) or the subject of a lot of discarded footage.
Either way, these animals are filmed in such a way as to simultaneously anthropomorphise them and have them appear entirely natural, going about their everyday business as if the camera wasn’t there. Some of them really do appear to have facial expressions. A captivating sequence which follows a baby goat plays out live a live-action Disney film: it’s cute when he’s startled by a loud noise, funny when he falls off an upturned bucket and heart-wrenching when he gets cut off from the rest of the herd.
I didn’t find the film as whole nearly as significant as some critics on the poster seem to have done – according to the New York Times’ A.O. Scott it ‘reinvents the very act of perception’ (blimey) – but that isn’t to say it wasn’t enjoyable, in a quiet, gentle and unthreatening kind of way. ‘Gem’ is probably an overused term when describing independent cinema, but this one fits the bill.