The Italian director discusses his Venice prizewinner, a reenactment of a real-life descent down one of the world’s deepest caves.
By Leonardo Goi
Michelangelo Frammartino’s new feature, Il buco, is his first that can be rightfully labelled a period piece. Set in the early sixties, it reenacts a legendary caving expedition that saw a handful of young speleologists travel from Turin to Calabria and descend down the Bifurto Abyss—a 700 meters deep cave then thought to be the third largest on Earth. But the Italian director’s filmography (a protean body of work spanning shorts and three features) has always hailed from its own anachronistic planet, one where time seems to work differently—if it does work at all. His first two features (Il Dono, 2003, and Le Quattro Volte, 2010) were ostensibly set in the present, but the rural Calabria they immortalized looked like a universe telegraphed from the past. Ancestral rituals, slow-paced routines, and pastoral landscapes where humans are almost camouflaged against plants and animals; to be walking into Frammartino’s films is to experience a kind of temporal dissonance, to wrestle with a jumbled chronology and a lingering doubt: what year is this?
In Il Buco, that would be 1961, halfway through the economic “boom” that would transform Italy from a war-torn wasteland into one of the world’s most industrialized countries. Glimpses and echoes of that miracle ricochet everywhere in the film, and Frammartino (who co-wrote the script with Giovanna Giuliani) turns to them to underscore the insurmountable distance between the richer North and the poorer South, and the tension between the youngsters’ accomplishment and the path the world had undertaken. As the film opens, the speleologists reach a remote hamlet in Calabria only to find all its inhabitants crammed around an old TV: they’re watching a special on the Pirellone, a freshly-built skyscraper towering above Milan as a totem of the country’s economic advance. While the wealthiest nations were priapically flaunting their progress in the shapes of towers or spaceships, the youths who braved the Bifurto Abyss travelled in the opposite direction. Much like Frammartino’s own cinema, theirs was an untimely, anachronistic feat, and from this gravitational clash between Pirellone and Bifurto, between a skyward ascent and a downward conquest, Il buco draws some of its most thought-provoking material.
Shot in long static takes by the veteran Swiss cinematographer Renato Berta (famed for his work with, among many others, Louis Malle, Alain Tanner, and Jean-Marie Straub), Il buco is a largely wordless chronicle of the underground odyssey. We follow the speleologists down the abyss, a maze of pits and shafts and pools, each frame—shot on an ultra-wide lens and in deep focus—bristling with the beauty of things that have never been seen before. There’s an immersive thrill about feeling the camera propped on a precipice as the explorers descend down the abyss, a Herzogian quality that makes those underground shots just as spell-binding as the efforts that went into capturing them. Speaking to Artforum, Frammartino has stated that much of his practice emerged as a reaction against “an enforced passivity of viewership” fueled by mainstream cinema and television. With Il buco, he seems far less interested in celebrating that 1961 adventure—otherworldly as it was—than in problematizing its meaning. For the voyage down the Bifurto remains a kind of colonization, an offshoot of the economic miracle those youths seemed to work against. Running parallel to their journey there’s another storyline following an old shepherd patrolling the valley around the sinkhole. As many other humans dotting Frammartino’s films, he shares a near-symbiotic relationship with his surroundings, and it’s telling that, no sooner have the speleologists begun their descent, his health should suddenly deteriorate. That the film succeeds in turning the cavern into a kind holy ground only amplifies the uneasiness you experience as the young men and women desecrate it. All their mapping and studying, noble in intent as they may have been, eventually yanked the cave out of the realm of myths; once they reached the bottom, the Bifurto was no longer an Abyss—only a hole in the ground.
Frammartino reflected on this as we met at last year’s Venice Film Festival, a few days before Il Buco nabbed a Special Jury Prize.
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