A shepherd sits on the edge of a mountain, where the slate-gray stones meet the deep, verdant grass. Lush trees, whose branches dance in the wind, surround him. Every day, the old man watches cows graze at the foot of the mountain. Call it a ritual. His wrinkled and stubbly face marks the passage of time. Occasionally, his donkey joins him. So begins Il Buco, Michelangelo Frammartino’s masterful work of sound and sight.
Eleven years after his last feature, The Four Times, a philosophical meditation on a goatherd’s life, Frammartino returns with this quiet study of a dangerous exploratory effort. This film, which feels more like an extended art installation than a full-blown cinematic narrative, might not completely satisfy viewers who have been eagerly awaiting the filmmaker’s latest project. Still, it stands powerfully on its own, offering breathtaking images of rural Italy and a subtle interrogation of the slow creep of change and modernity.
The Bottom Line
Slow but stunning.
Frammartino dreamt up the idea for Il Buco while shooting The Four Times. The mayor of the Calabrian village where the team was filming took the director on a tour of the nearby Pollino, a mountainous region in southern Italy, and showed him a deep hole in the ground. It wasn’t until the mayor, a former speleologist who had explored this cavity, threw a stone into its void that a new understanding dawned on the initially skeptical artist. “The bottom was so deep that nothing could be seen nor heard,” Frammartino, whose parents are from the small village, writes in his director’s statement. “That disappearance, that lack of response, gave me a very strong emotion.”
Such emotions drive this narratively spare project, which is less concerned with plot or character development than with capturing the dull buzz of flies, the coarse terra-cotta walls of a cave, and the mood of the landscape that’s subject to intrusion.
Set in the 1960s (a period of economic prosperity in Europe), Il Buco captures the journey of a group of young speleologists exploring the bottom of the Bifurto Abyss, which at 687 meters (2,254 feet) is one of the world’s deepest caves. Their journey begins in the neighboring village, whose residents barely register their presence. Scenes of life moving along — the townspeople washing their clothes, watching television, slaughtering livestock, eating, laughing and playing — make up the beginning of the film. After a few days, the men pack their belongings and head toward the mountain, where the old shepherd sits and watches.
As they assemble their tents near the cave, the speleologists drive the area’s horses and cattle to different parts of the pasture. Their entrance feels invasive, and although the old man remains undisturbed, their arrival signals an inevitable change on the horizon. From here, Il Buco splits into parallel narratives: one of the old shepherd and the other of the young speleologists plumbing the deep hole in the ground.
With the help of cinematographer Renato Berta, Frammartino meticulously captures the strenuous process of mapping a cave. Representing the absence of light is no easy feat, but the duo manages to do it beautifully here, giving the darkness shape and depth. As the explorers, all played by real-life speleologists, inch downward, viewers feel like they’re part of the men’s journey. Berta illuminates only the parts of the screen where the men actively work, and each frame reinforces the co-dependent relationship between light and dark, the known and the unknown.
The same careful eye is applied to life on Earth’s surface: Berta and Frammartino juxtapose images of the men working within the cave with scenes of them hanging out aboveground, sleeping, playing football and interacting with nature. In one particularly funny sequence, a horse sticks parts of his nose into a tent, grazes the head of a sleeping speleologist and, as if realizing his own lack of interest in the tent interior, walks away.
The actors — who were more interested in plying their trade and plunging hundreds of feet than the chance to appear onscreen — move with unnerving calm and precision, which intensifies the experience of watching them in the act of discovery. Sound, too, plays a critical role. The labored breathing of the men as they move up and down the cave each day, the faint scratching of the cartographer’s pen on paper as he sketches their daily progress, the suits brushing against the edges of the cave — all this becomes an ethereal soundtrack to the repetitive activities.
Il Buco is a soothing watch best viewed in the darkness of a cinema. It’s an immersive experience whose reward comes from the way Frammartino slowly builds on minutiae in work of the shepherd and the speleologists. One could walk away with deep thoughts about modernity and the relationship between nature and man, but that’s not required. Appreciating the beauty of an intricate process unfolding is more than enough.