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