Il Buco review – unhurried meditation on the beauties of geological time

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I n 2011 Italian artist Michelangelo Frammartino scored a small indie hit with a film called Le Quattro Volte, a metaphysical study of a mountain village that featured bleating goats and ringing bells, charcoal burners and Roman centurions. Le Quattro Volte was odd and gentle and by and large people loved it. I’m not sure how much money one earns from a small indie hit. Probably enough to pay for a weekend break in Tropea. Now Frammartino is back – 10 years later, not wanting to rush things – with the lovely Il Buco, another film that is content to saunter on the wild side, gazing at woods and sky, rocks and trees and identifying a serene, quiet heaven in everything that it sees. It’s not quite a documentary, yet nor is it exactly a narrative feature. It lives alone; the cinematic equivalent of a hermit on a mountaintop.

Frammartino’s last film was inspired by Pythagoras. This one takes its prompt from a 1961 potholing expedition in Calabria, mapping out a labyrinthine cave system which was confirmed at the time as the third deepest in the world. The film shows the cavers descending its slick twists and turns and uncovering an old photo and a damp magazine with JFK on the cover. Whatever item slips into the crevasse instantly becomes history, or a lost memory; a teasing remnant of the people who once walked above.

Il Buco, in its meditative, unhurried fashion, tells the story of the speleologists’ mission. But it links this with the fading fortunes of an ancient peasant farmer who lives in a shack near the hole. Frammartino shows the man sitting patiently on the mountainside, summoning his cattle as though speaking in tongues; and then again, later, ailing in bed while his middle-aged son maintains an anxious watch. Il Buco, in essence, contrasts the deep time of the cave with the shallow time of those who live around it. The weatherbeaten farmer is 80 years old if he’s a day. But in geological terms that registers as an eyeblink.

Amid all the noise and fury of this year’s Venice film festival it was a pure pleasure to sit for a spell with Il Buco, to watch the old farmer, the young cavers and to listen to the sound of the wind in the trees. I’m not certain that I can fully explain it. I’m not convinced that it matters. Frammartino goes about his business in the manner of a discreet anthropologist: rarely interfering, content to simply set up his camera and watch the people and livestock go by, as though the very act of observing is itself a great privilege. Which it quite possibly is. It made me think of the brief piece of archive footage that opens the film: the tale of a New York window-cleaner who boasts that he loves his work because it gives him the chance to look through the glass of the office buildings and see all the people hard at work - either not knowing or not caring that he’s actually working as well.

Il Buco screens at the Venice film festival.

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