The Critical Reception of ‘Le Quattro Volte’ Abroad
Since its premiere at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, where it was presented in competition at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, Le quattro volte triggered an extremely positive response from critics all over the world. Confirming its success, the film also gained three David di Donatello nominations and a Special Nastro d’Argento, awarded by the Italian Nation Syndicate of Film Journalists “for the poetic realism and emotions of an amazing film”.
Moreover, thanks to this movie, Michelangelo Frammartino has been identified as one of the main exponents of the so-called “cinema del reale” movement – or “slow cinema” – one of the most innovative trends of recent Italian cinema, that mixes and hybridizes fiction and documentary. According to the definition formulated by Jonathan Romney in the pages of Sight & Sound, the main features of “slow cinema” can be found in the “rarefied intensity in the artistic gaze, whether the images are polished […] or frugally rough edged”. This “aesthetic of the slow” favours elements such as a slow and anti-dramatic narrative; the use of long takes; time dilation and the suspension of the diegetic flow through the representation of stillness; a lack of dialogue or silence. In this way, viewers are invited to focus their attention on small details within the frame and to enhance the contemplative time within the narrative – in short, to experiment a new visual practice.
Italian film critics immediately understood and emphasized the novel elements of Frammartino’s work. L’unità’s Alberto Crespi called Le quattro volte a “not easy cinematic experience, but absolutely unusual”, while Boris Sollazzo in Liberazione stated: “It might be difficult to enter in the film, undressing the visual and narrative habits we have, following a type of cinema that the viewer is not used to that imposes a high level of attention and availability. But then it leaves you with something deep, inexplicable, sweet. A contact with something that we have forgotten, the deep and elementary meaning of life, perhaps”. Other critics, like Davide Turrini in Liberazione or Gloria Satta in Il Messaggero, highlighted the affinity of Frammartino with Masters such as Bresson, Flaherty, De Seta or Straub. In his book collection of film reviews Il Mereghetti, Paolo Mereghetti summarized the main traits that make Frammartino a champion of “cinema del reale”. Reviewing Le quattro volte he stated: “The film immediately overcomes any anthropocentric dimension to offer a spectator who is not afraid of a story that is only seemingly difficult, a message of freedom and invention that is above all cinematographic, where sound and montage images rediscover their original strength as instruments that tell and interpret reality”.
Despite the fact that Switzerland was one of the countries involved in the co-production of Le quattro volte – along with Italy and Germany – little space was dedicated to the movie in the national press. Furthermore, most of the reviews came exclusively from the Ticino Region and from the Italian linguistic area. However, though few, the Swiss reviews were largely positive towards Frammartino’s work. FilmExplorer’s Giuseppe Di Salvatore, for instance, praised the “hypnotic slowness” of the movie that allows the viewer “to get closer to the natural essence of man, to the time of nature itself”. Emeric Sallon’s review in Rapporto Confidenziale is more articulated and enthusiastic; he defines the movie as the result of the “combination between poetry and reality; between a fictional and symbolic montage and the documentary; between an aspiration to elevation and the attachment to the earth”. The reviewer also emphasized the technical and stylistic abilities of the director, who “strives to film a world with no other dialogue than natural communication, a symbiosis that is shaped more through gestures than words”.
Le quattro volte was presented in competition at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Europa Cinema Label Award; from that moment, both the French specialized and generalist press praised the film unanimously.
Most reviews focused on the poetic quality of Frammartino’s work: Paris Match’s Alain Spira defined the film “a masterpiece” of “endless poetry”, while Première’s Isabelle Danel stated that the film “pushes the limits of narrative” mainly thanks to “images, splendid and incongruous”. Even more favourable and generous was the recognition in Le Monde, where film critic Jean-Luc Douin opened his review emphatically stating: “Revelations like this, they rarely shows up. Filmmakers like this, you must honour them. This film, a mischievous simplicity, is amazing beauty and gravity”.
Prestigious journals like Positif (Number 599, January 2011) and Les Cahiers du Cinéma (Number 662, December 2010) shared this sentiment. In the latter, Joachim Lepastier defined Le quattro volte “a discreet and joyful reconciliation of l’art savant and l’art naïf”, while in Positif Jean A. Gili stated that the movie “is punctuated like a visual poem where everything is in the picture”.
In the UK, Le quattro volte was included in the debate on “slow cinema”, where it flourished on the pages of Sight & Sound in the summer of 2011, thanks to articles by Nick James and Jonathan Romney. As the latter notes, from the early 2000s there has been an “increasing demand among cinephiles for films that are slow, poetic, contemplative cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality”. Jonathan Romney strengthened his positions also on the pages of The Independent, without hesitating to define the film “a masterpiece”: “The film is an extraordinary achievement – beautiful, moving, mysterious, and, at times, extremely funny. In its self-effacing way, it’s nothing short of a miracle – one of those rare works that break all the rules about what cinema ‘should’ be in order to demonstrate what it can be”.
Frammartino’s work was also welcomed by the rest of the critics. Writing from Cannes, Sight & Sound’s Geoff Andrew listed Le quattro volte among “the most interesting film” of the entire competition, calling it a “small gem” and praising its “lyrical but often comic vision of a rather old-fashioned, ritualistic way of life in a Calabrian village that involves goatherds and charcoal-burners”. Empire’s David Parkinson emphasized the aesthetic qualities of the film, calling it “a beautiful but slow moving celebration of life, stunningly photographed”. He also lauded Frammartino’s “quasi-documentary style that enables him to meld observation with imagination”. Peter Bradshaw responded along the same lines, defining the film in the pages of The Guardian as an antidote to “wittering, headache-inducing nonsense at the cinema”: “Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro Volte, or The Four Times, is a gem of art cinema and a miracle of animal-wrangling. This beautiful movie is almost entirely wordless; it is slow, precise, superbly filmed, with an almost respiratory sense of the rise and fall of the seasons and the rhythm of the countryside”.
Although there were some small exceptions, American critics have responded positively to the film. For instance, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn stated that “Le quattro volte is cinema at its most primal, yet simultaneously contains a wealth of ideas”. The famous critic Roger Ebert admitted he was surprised at how absorbed he became while watching the film, defining it “a film that invites philosophical musing”.
The review published by The New York Times was arguably one of the most flattering received by the film. Film critic A.O. Scott praised both the philosophical complexity and the openness of the movie, its “sense of antiquity” and its “jarring freshness”: “Humor – generated by incongruities of scale, the workings of chance and the intrinsic preposterousness of goats, snails and people – amounts almost to a philosophical stratagem, a way of exploring how the world works and how it looks. What is perhaps most remarkable about Le quattro volte is that it is at once completely accessible and endlessly mysterious”. Scott’s review was also particularly relevant because it effectively emphasized the hybrid nature of the film, stating that “in spite of the director’s observant naturalism and indifference to the usual expectations of plot, character and performance, Le Quattro Volte is not a documentary”.
This aspect was also highlighted in the review by Variety, one of the few voices that went against the norm. Although he recognized the aesthetic qualities of the movie, critic Jay Weissberg accused the film of overly intellectualizing, manipulating and fetishizing its own subject: “it risks playing less like the record of dying traditions in a forgotten corner of Europe and more like an outsider’s attempt to capture the picturesque elements he finds most stimulating”. The author harshly concludes, “lovely images combined with a pseudo-anthropological overlay will spur fest pickups, but no more than that”.