With NYFF's single-screen location, rarified uptown environs, expensive tickets and overall historical aura of curated NYC exclusivity, every film is an event—making it a rather different experience than most spread-out smorgasbords, where badge-holders chase buzz, fill slots and get tired. With its tidy run-time, well-framed widescreen vistas of gently brooding landscape, and minor-key philosophical musings, Michelangelo Frammartino's Le quattro volte is a film most of us would, I suspect, feel lucky to lark into in the event that there are no seats left for a preferred auteur's latest—so if it seems out of place at Alice Tully, that's surely (mostly) down to context.
The film is set in a fortress-walled mountain village on Calabria, in South Italy; both town and country are introduced to us through the daily tasks of an elderly goatherd, obviously near death from the way he wheezes—he never speaks, either to himself, his herd, or to the few townsfolk he routinely meets, and indeed Le quattro volte has no dialogue to go with its detailed natural soundtrack. It's a silent movie with sound, perhaps, especially with its deadpan choreography—first of the ornery goats and then, in a single swiveling overhead take tracking back between the action in town and at the annual passion play, on a far-off hill, a dog which must be seen to be believed, hitting its marks, barking on command, and carrying out a Buster Keatonesque slapstick setpiece.
The dog prepares us for the film's shift of focus: the four times of the title seem to be human, animal, vegetable and mineral, and the second chapter recalls silent film too—the slightly more bathetic, soppily populist side of wordless drama, this time, as we ooh and oh to the trials of a hapless newborn goat.
There's no point of identification in the second half of Le quattro volte—except in a cosmic sense. As a tall fir tree weathers the change of seasons and is chopped down and rode into town to be raised for an elaborate town tradition (they strip its branches climb it, and swarm it as they knock it over again), then chopped up and burned down to charcol in an ancient kiln (almost a smoky burial mound), we get a great sense of obscure local tradition (against often intimately overcast views of the southern Italian highlands), and it's this sense of barely conceivable ritual that gives the film a sense of time that's both cyclical and progressive, all living things transformed and absorbed.