Michelangelo Frammartino, Le quattro volte (Four Times), 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 88 minutes.


A TREE IS A TREE IS A TREE, or so Gertrude Stein would have it. Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (Four Times) suggests otherwise. An omniscient view of life with an unerring blend of wit and wisdom, this irresistible fable is inspired by the idea of cyclical transmigration in the natural order. When the body of a deceased goatherd is interred in its tomb, a momentarily black screen bursts into light in sync with a baby goat emerging from its mother’s body. Later, when the goat dies at the foot of a huge fir, it becomes part of the soil that nourishes the tree. After the tree is subsequently cut down and used in a village festival, it is reduced to wood and converted, via the ancient tradition of kiln smoking, into the charcoal that fuels the homes and cooks the food of the inhabitants of the Calabrian village where the film is set. Without dialogue or narration, the unassailable logic of this structure unfolds seamlessly.

Though officially outlawed by certain religions (one of the few things held in common by Christianity and Islam) the ancient belief in metempsychosis—the idea that the soul of a dead being enters a new life, sometimes in a different form—is still held by many peoples all over the globe. Speaking of the genealogy of his work, Frammartino cites the persistence of this doctrine in Calabria, from the time the philosopher Pythagoras taught it and founded a religious community there (then called Kroton) in the sixth century BC through to the present day. But Le quattro volte is neither a documentary nor a religious tract. Serenely composed and paced as befits the subject it delineates, it seduces us with its gentle, assured manner, laced with charity and humor.

As attentive to the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds as it is to the human, the film confirms cinema as the “redemption of physical reality.” This was the basis of Siegfried Kracauer’s theory that unlike other art forms, film was inherently democratic. Far from privileging the human, it made all things, animate and inanimate, equally compelling before the camera. Frammartino’s long shots give full measure to this idea. They range from Tati-like tableaux of the human condition that only seem blissfully unorchestrated, to bird’s-eye views that recall the kind of landscape painting—e.g., of Bosch, or Poussin—that encompasses myriad narrative details. Several distant shots of a mountainside reveal microscopic movement—of goats, or a religious procession—making incremental progress along a barely discernible path. From such perspectives, mortal lives and ritual events seem little more than the bustling of so many ant colonies. Frammartino’s canvases give us the big picture, so to speak, within which the daily existence of individuals seems very small indeed.

Whether this wonderfully empathic detachment conceals or reveals the director’s belief in the immortality and transference of souls is a mystery he mischievously exploits. If we look condescendingly, for example, at the superstitious goatherd who believes in the curative power of dust from the local church, we are brought up short when the old fellow dies the morning after failing to take his daily dose. And regarding ants, Frammartino adds a touch that deftly links the imagery and theme of his film in the most naturalistic manner. As the goatherd squats in a field, an ant makes its way across his face and onto his forehead, a motif seen again in a close shot of the goat that loses its way, and on the bark of the tree just before it is felled. Less the grim reaper than the humble instrument of nature’s laws, the ant embodies both the industriousness of all living beings and their ultimate subordination to the scheme of things. Neither preachy nor pretentious, there’s not a lovelier, more resonant piece of moviemaking in New York at the moment.

Tony Pipolo

Le quattro volte runs March 30–April 12 at Film Forum in New York.