Le Quattro Volte

March 27, 2013

As Easter approaches, I’m thinking about the themes of life, death, and resurrection (of a kind) in the 2010 Italian film ‘Le Quattro Volte’. In its press release, the director paraphrases Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century, BC in what is now Calabria, Italy: “Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another. Man is mineral because his skeleton is made of salt; man is also vegetable because his blood flows like sap; he is animal in as much he is endowed with motility and knowledge of the outside world. Finally, man is human because he has the gifts of will and reason. Thus, we must know ourselves four times.”

Regardless of whether Pythagoras philosophy resonates, the film moved me as a meditation on life and death and time and beauty in a village up in the hills of Calabria. It’s tempting to say that the village is “isolated” and “remote” and “forgotten by time”, but these platitudes are not only cliché but untrue.

The village sits up on a hill like a fortress from the Middle Ages, which at one time it very well may have been. At a distance it does appear isolated–but isolated from what? Banks, cash checking places, gas stations, malls, and big box stores? It is detached from these convenient and unattractive features of modern sprawl, yet it isn’t isolated so much as it is surrounded by undulating hills and forests and meadow. And rather than being “forgotten by time”, life in the village is directly engaged with the seasons, for which each has a tradition dutifully acknowledged and celebrated.

The drama of life and death in the village plays out undramatically: An old man near death nevertheless gets up each day to herd goats, collect snails from the dirt road leading into town, and attend mass; Goats are taken out to pasture and one gets separated from the rest and calls out for help, its cries increasingly desperate as the herd wanders further away; Townspeople cut down an enormous fir tree, strip it bare, and haul it up to the village. We watch it all unfold mostly at a distance.

In a single, uncut scene that plays out like a Biblical parable, we watch from a perch above and away from the road leading into town, which breaks off into two smaller streets heading up into the village and a third that descends away from it. In the center of this intersection a rambunctious and determined Border Collie attempts to get the attention of everyone who passes. A car stops to drop off a woman. As the car drives off the dog approaches, barking incessantly. The woman hesitates, confused, and tries to sidestep the dog. Then an Easter procession of villagers descends, lead by two young men dressed as Roman centurions. The dog vocally demands the attention of the faux centurions, but the men see him as a nuisance and chase him away.

By this time we suspect the dog is intent on herding someone, anyone, to his master’s humble home just off the intersection. In previous scenes we’ve observed the old man’s slow but steady gait, his depleting energy, his need for rest. We’ve seen the dog herding goats along the usual route backtrack, confused, to find his master crouched on the ground, unable to make long distances without rest. And now we see the dog, alone, intent on getting help.

The procession moves past. The last person to appear is a young alterboy hurrying to join the others. He is blocked by the dog, who seems to know that this is his last chance. Impatient to get by, the boy hurls stones at the dog until it cowers away. It isn’t that the villagers are cruel or uncaring but that they are alive and well and eager to participate in what is very likely the most significant tradition in the village, a celebration of life and death and resurrection. 

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