Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

23 January 2012


Two films I've seen recently are more like gorgeous cinematic poems than they are anything else.

Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte is a film that approaches the idea of life itself by addressing what it means to possess life or live life, or maybe the movie is about how life and death are not really good ways of measuring what it is we actually mean when we talk about being alive.

Le Quattro Volte follows a very old goatherd as he tends his flock in a mountain village in Italy and performs the various rituals that fill out his day. Being a very old man, some of his habits are slightly peculiar, but the film follows him in silence and without apparent judgment. Often the camera simply sits and we watch the old man move about his daily existence.

Spoiler alert: the man dies at about the forty-minute mark in the film, and from there the camera follows a goat as it is born and as it learns about the world. This part was, for me, the most magical part of the movie. The baby goat discovers his universe, learns about gravity, learns about friendship. Watching this is fascinating and extremely engrossing. The little animal sees things we take for granted, and its vision is really remarkable. (Incidentally, some of these shots are just extraordinary and I have no idea how the filmmaker captured them.)

Le Quattro Volte follows a tree next. The camera sits among its branches or stares at it for extended periods. The tree is cut down and put to use in various ways in the village. This part of the movie was the part that really got me to thinking about life and death. Watching a man die is something a film can do easily, but watching a tree be put to use after it has died was something very interesting. In a way, the tree lived still. I feel as though Le Quattro Volte asked me to rethink the idea of living and the good we can do while alive – death is the end for us, sure, (Woody Allen always said he'd rather live on in his apartment than live on in people's hearts) but the effect that we have on our world does not end with us. What we do lives after us. We will be put to use when we are gone. This is comforting and challenging at the same time, and if I am having trouble expressing what I mean in words, the film does it eloquently without words.

The other poetic film I had the privilege of seeing was Abbas Kiarostami's Copie Conforme (Certified Copy). Unlike Le Quattro Volte, which had almost no dialogue at all, Copie Conforme is filled with dialogue. At first the film is a dialogue about a point of art. Isn't a copy just as much a work of art as an original? (The question seems particularly salient to theatre artists, but to be honest I don't think it that valuable of a question, mostly because I am not very interested in art with a capital a.) But it is the relationship between the film's two protagonists that is the most interesting here. And what is odd is that their relationship is not always clear in Kiarostami's film. Are the two married? Have they just met? The film seems to tell us one thing and then show us the other. It is disconcerting, certainly, but fascinating. Absolutely fascinating, in fact. And Juliette Binoche is absolutely riveting in the lead role as she speaks English, Italian, and French without skipping a beat.

At one point in Copie Conforme the conversation between the two turns to the shifts that love must take as it ages. Love is bubbly and bright, restless, breathless, hungry, when it is young, but as it ages love mellows. And as the couple speak of love that is old, the gentleman quotes a line from the Iranian poet Mehdi Akhavān Sāles. The garden of leaflessness: who dares to say that it is not beautiful?

Aside from the line's obvious power, I think the film, too, manages to meditate on love itself as it is born, as it ages, and as it very old. The film is poetic, as I say, and I can only say what I took from it, or perhaps what I mean to say is that this meditation on love as it gets older was what I wanted the film's subject to be. What I know is that I found the film engrossing and beautiful and deeply moving.

To be clear, I don't really want to recommend Le Quattro Volte or Copie Conforme to readers of this blog. If you don't like slow movies you will hate these. And if you aren't into films that don't make narrative sense, these movies are not for you. But I completely loved both of these pictures. They are easily two of my favorite films of the year, and I found many of their images and ideas absolutely unforgettable.