By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/12/21 – Screening this week as part of a series of new films from Italy is the annual Cinema Italian Style offerings of the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. Among the films in the lineup is Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco (The Hole, 2021). In his third film after Il Dono (2003) and Le quattro volte (2010), Frammartino returns in Il Buco to the Calabria of his parents. Il Buco, born of his encounter with the Pollino territory and in particular with the speleologist Nino Larocca, reaffirms that way of understanding the seventh art called “slow cinema” or cinema of reality, which captures the breath and the rhythm of the space it explores through a non-dramatic narrative. This is not a documentary but a reenactment of an event that occurred in 1961 in Italy. At that time a group of young Piedmontese speleologists descended into the subsoil of the Pollino, a mountainous system between Calabria and Basilicata, into the Bifurto Abyss, and descended 700 meters to bottom for the first time. What they discovered there was, at that time, considered to be the third deepest cave on the planet.
In making this film, the Milanese director Frammartino equipped 12 young speleologists, selected during a year and a half of casting throughout Italy, with 60-year-old equipment and filmed them as they repeated the feat of their predecessors along the 700 meters of the narrow fracture in the ground. What is striking from the very first shot is the breathtaking photography, which presents an uncontaminated nature where green dominates, dotted with patches of grazing cattle, and the warm and humid colors of the cave. In an interview, Frammartino explained his impetus for making the film was “a meeting with Giulio Gecchele in 2016 during a speleological expedition which I was taking part in. And then, thanks to Antonio Larocca, a well-known speleologist from Calabria, I was introduced to the Bifurto cave, where I discovered an interesting setting for a film. I learned about a group of youngsters who, in 1961, traveled down from the North, which was in the midst of an economic boom, and chose that particular cave. They weren’t looking for notoriety, they didn’t even document their experience. They just took a few photos.”
The intruders’ venture goes unnoticed by the inhabitants of a small neighboring village of Cerchiara di Calabria – but not by the old shepherd of the Pollino plateau, whose solitary life begins to interweave with the group’s journey. Another work of near-wordless beauty that touches on the mystical from visionary director Michelangelo Frammartino, this film plumbs unknown depths of life and nature through two parallel voyages to the interior. Responsible for this magic is Swiss cinematographer Renato Berta (a 76-year-old who has worked with masters such as Godard, Resnais, Rohmer, Rivette, Malle, Téchiné, Huillet-Straub and De Oliveira). The caves remain absolutely off-screen like a darkness hostile to the camera, as Frammartino pointed out in a meeting with the press at the end of filming. Yet, “the off-screen, the invisible, represent its deepest ‘substance.’” If the myth of Plato’s cave refers to cinema, then making a film about the exploration of a very deep cave is akin to going down into the heart of cinema itself, bringing light into the darkness of an unknown world, casting long shadows.
From the surface, the titular “hole” appears as a scar on the picturesque Calabrian countryside –the same setting that Frammartino explored with hushed jubilance in 2010’s Le Quattro Volte – but as we’ll see through the filmmaker’s detailed observation of the spelunkers’ work, it extends deep into the Earth. Lit only by the cavers’ helmet lamps, the sinkhole is a place of quiet mystery, whose depths are a promise of shadowy beauty and danger. Just about any other take on this material would have played up the perilous nature of the spelunking. By contrast, Il Buco focuses on the way that the expeditioners carry out their work without comment, drama, or any obvious emotion. Frammartino and cinematographer Renato Berta present the men, consummate professionals who operate with a clear sense of purpose, as figural subjects across a series of exquisite pictorial compositions. Fascinated by the interplay of light and landscape, the filmmakers memorably contrast the sunlit verdancy of the open field where the men work with the deep, dark interior of the sinkhole.
Frammartino juxtaposes these scenes of speleological exploration with shots of a wordless old shepherd who watches the crew from his elevated hillside perch. The man serves as a kind of surrogate audience member, but his presence also feels slightly contrived, particularly when he grows ill and is taken to a farmhouse where he slowly passes away. His death provides a metaphysical counterpoint to the end of the cavers’ expedition, which reaches its conclusion with the discovery of the hole’s walled-off bottom. All things must eventually come to an end, the film suggests – accurate observation, to be sure, but far from profound.
Frammartino’s film is grounded in a particular time and place – Italy, 1961 – through the inclusion of certain details such as archival footage of the construction of Milan’s Pirelli Tower and a magazine with JFK and Richard Nixon on the cover. In one scene, the residents of a small town of Cerchiara tucked away in the Calabrian hills gather outside a local bar to watch a television broadcast of a jazzy dance number. Outside the idyllic environs of Calabria represent for Frammartino the calm, rustic way of life that will eventually come to an end with the encroachment of modern technology and the disruptions of globalization.
As Frammatino explained elsewhere in an interview: There is a juxtaposition of the industrialized North of Italy and the rural Calabrian South. “We do still tend to look to the North to change things, but I believe there’s a really important Mediterranean culture which we should pay greater attention to.” There are two temporalities at work: “The cave forces you to think about time. You don’t have the regular daytime-night-time cycle down there, or the changes in temperature which regulate our bodies and which are our reference points. You’re in the dark, the temperature is constant, and something takes place on a physical level, too. You feel like you’ve been down there for two hours when, actually, it’s been ten. You lose all notion of time when it comes to abysses.”