Michelangelo Frammartino‘s Le Quattro Volte has one the nicest extended sight gags in recent memory: At the tail end of a religious procession of the Stations of the Cross, in the hilly southern Italian village in which the film takes place, a timid boy encounters a combative dog that won’t let him pass. In the boy’s efforts to get around his tormentor, a vehicle gets jarred out of place, rolls lazily across the road, and crashes into a pen filled with goats. The herd escapes, and while the entire population is gathered at the cemetery outside town, the village is overrun with goats. They make a mess and go everywhere, even into the house of the local goatherd, who at that moment happens to be dying in bed. And so he passes away in the company of his flock.
Not the most comical sequence, but it fits in with Frammartino’s seductive little film, poised halfway between doctored doc and artfully spare narrative, about the village, the goatherd and his routine, and the ritualistic fabrication of charcoal. The charcoal making, a process as elaborate as decorating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, dovetails with the simple life of the old, wheezing goatherd, played by non-actor Giuseppe Fuda. To cure his chronic cough, he drinks dust from the floor of the church mixed with water. The old man dies, and a goat kid is born. Writer-director Frammartino, a native of northern Italy, observes quietly, and we’re struck by the primitive beauty of the setting. Outside of motor scooters and the occasional cell phone, the story could have taken place a hundred years ago, or maybe even a thousand.
Almost nothing else actually happens, but somehow this dialogue-less trip to a place seemingly out of time is a completely enchanting way to spend an evening in a theater. A true pastoral tone poem, Le Quattro Volte would make a fine double feature alongside Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor‘s sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass. You can’t get any earthier than those two.