Le Quattro volte (U)

Ryan Gilbey is charmed by a whimsical picture about life, death and goats.

Le Quattro volte (U)
dir: Michelangelo Frammartino

Some way in to Le Quattro volte, the young star of the film is frolicking in the woods in rural Calabria with his high-spirited friends and siblings. They are more rambunctious than he is and faster, too, and as they tear off towards the horizon, he finds himself stuck in a dried-out river that carves its way through the hillside. Unable to gain a purchase on the bank and clamber out, and hearing the noise of the mob fading into the distance, he starts to panic. The youngster lets out a plea that is destined to become one of those timeless lines of dialogue quoted endlessly by film bores. What he says, over and over again, with mounting desperation, is: "Mehhh-ehhh-ehhhh." This plucky kid puts paid to the idea that one can be either the hero or the goat. He's both.

Not that he walks off with the film. Equal star billing should go to his fellow quadrupeds, in particular the shaggy-haired scene-stealer with horns like a Harley's handlebars, who is seen perched on a kitchen table, protesting loudly at the air. The director, Michelangelo Frammartino, leaves that scene and many others simply hanging; his film's equivocal, unresolved air makes it seem entirely possible that the goat is still there now, trying to figure out how to get down.

Some may insist that the stand-out role is the fir tree that dominates the third of the picture's four parts, while others will argue that its performance is a tad wooden. You certainly don't find yourself asking: "What's its motivation?" Its motivation is to grow.

As you will have gathered by now, Le Quattro volte is not like other films. It has no dialogue, save for distant Italian voices. It has no music, no voice-over and no characters in any conventional fashion. While it touches on the last days of an elderly goatherd (Giuseppe Fuda), he is a bit player compared to the animals that he tends to. Their lives, in turn, are dwarfed by that of the majestic fir, which is shown to be as impermanent and dispersible as the beasts that shelter beneath it. And so on.

Such narrative as there is was scripted back at the dawn of time, shortly before Robert McKee started holding screenwriting seminars.

Frammartino, a video installation artist who has made one previous film (Il Dono, also shot in Calabria), brings to this circle-of-life story a playful flavour and a spiritual element. Much of the film amounts to suggestion and inference. After the goatherd dies, there is nothing to say explicitly that he is reincarnated as the baby goat that plops out of its mother and on to the ground in a shiny pile of wet hair and wobbly limbs. Rather, it's the order of shots that prods us gently towards that conclusion.

The film conjures magic from this manipulation of cinema's most rudimentary trick, the placement of one image next to another. The nocturnal revelry in a town square is given an elegiac tinge with a single cut that whisks us forward to the next morning, with the same camera looking down on the square, now quiet and almost deserted in the crisp morning light. Frammartino is also a sucker for a visual rhyme and knows how to spin it into a gag: from a shot of frantic ants, he cuts to an identically angled image of goats bustling and clip-clopping along a narrow country road. He finds a humorous parity between diverse species.

It would be overburdening this pleasantly whimsical film to claim that there was anything very profound about it. But small miracles are miracles just the same, and Frammar­tino deserves special credit for one episode of extended and magnificent comedy, as lightly worn as it must have been painstakingly choreographed, involving a timber truck, a yapping dog, a Christian pageant and, yes, more goats.

It forces one to ponder again the matter of reincarnation or transmigration - specifically, whether the spirit of Jacques Tati could have found its way into the film-maker while he was conceiving and directing this set piece. A large part of the comedy comes from the aloofness of the camera and its apparent belief that it is literally and figuratively above all this silliness. Frammartino is clearly a man of highfalutin ideas. What a relief that they don't stop him from acting the giddy goat. l

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis