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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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

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.