No Siren Call

Le Quattro Volte takes a slow look at four stages of life — mineral, vegetable, animal, human.
  • Le Quattro Volte takes a slow look at four stages of life — mineral, vegetable, animal, human.

Piping from countless multiplexes, the siren of summer buzz calls us to mull Green Lantern’s grosses, to decipher the Jim Carrey–comeback potential of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, to dwell on the Comic-Con dimensions of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, to ponder Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in Larry Crowne (John Rubio has that honor, next week).

But, strangely, we are drawn in by the irresistible zone of movies where real life and actual art can share a screen. As in:

Le Quattro Volte

It took five years to make Le Quattro Volte, and Michelangelo Frammartino warmed up for it with his first feature, The Gift (2003). That was set in the same small town in rural Calabria, Italy. The Greek philosopher and math-mystic Pythagoras once lived in the area, which faces Sicily. His notion of four stages or mutations of life (mineral, vegetable, animal, human) is behind the movie’s title and its conceptual framework. But to pin this picture down to an intellectual grid is to miss it — to be a good student but not the right viewer.

“The viewer must do all the work,” said Frammartino, who is 43 and from Milan. It will be frustrating work if you don’t surrender, patiently and wonderingly. The local religion is Catholic, but the film seems rooted in pre-Christian pantheism. The overarching ambition of The Tree of Life collapsed of its own, bloated weight, but here Frammartino has created a gravity that seems suspended both in history and beyond time.

First we see, tending his flock across hills of severe beauty, a goatherd (Giuseppe Fuda). He is old and has a serious cough. He treats it by by bringing goat milk to the church, receiving in exchange dust from the holy floor. Dust mixed with water helps him, but one night he runs out of the potion and can’t get any more.

The old man leaves behind his bleating flock, as well as his loyal dog, which is spooked by an Easter processional of men dressed as Roman soldiers. As if in retaliation, the dog helps free the goats from their pen. Like most of the movie, this is seen in long shot (long in both distance and length). This evokes a mood of Buster Keatonish comedy but also the grave, enduring charm of folk myths (increasingly, I think, Buster is like an American folk myth). The tempo is slow. We follow the herd, and then a kid goat whose whiteness makes it seem very vulnerable, as it winds alone poignantly uphill to a grand tree.

Now it is the tree’s turn, first in lofty solitude, then for use in a village ritual. That leads to a huge smokehouse (a kiln?), which takes us back to basics: dirt, dust, fire, air, ash, smoke. The few spoken words are sparse and dimly heard (without subtitles), while church bells provide the main resonance. We realize that what has been will be, as everlasting mutation. The Holy Trinity here could be Buddha, the classical poet Ovid, and nature-sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, but the God’s-eye view is Frammartino’s.

Serious cinephiles will detect the auteur shadows of Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, the Dardenne brothers, Tran Anh Hung, and the famously earthy Italians (Rossellini, Rosi, Olmi, Antonioni, the Fellini of La Strada). With unpretentious beauty, Frammartino eclipses such influences and our usual habits of film consumption. He defies the blaring, glaring god of commerce and brings a stark new poetry to old phrases such as “dust to dust” and “gone with the wind.” His art, unforgettably, is life.


Page One: Inside the New York Times

The New York Times is still the ponderous “Gray Lady” of yore if you are intimidated by newsprint and don’t care to know much of the real news. Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One shows how deeply the non-gray world gets into the Times, not just its pages but into the almost crazily workaholic lives of those who make the paper happen. Inevitably made with Times support, the movie is admiring but not slavish. The newspaper’s fabled arrogance has already been humbled by in-house scandals named Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, by digital smarties thrilled to rip (while also ripping off) America’s paper of record, and by financial setbacks in the web era.

These journalists are at the top of their competitive food chain and also fairly desperate to keep their jobs (some don’t, and leave mournfully). There is good stuff about the skillful sifting and evaluation of news — an art little known to the web except by ideological agenda or with the slant of sleaze, such as the advocate of a website devoted to the daily ranking of online stories (high up on his list is “Anne Hathaway is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Viagra”).

The Times remains a major constellation of talents, and in this film the one with star status is tall, lanky David Carr. The media reporter with “street cred” (former crack addict, etc.) likes confrontation. He has a barbed, croaky voice that slashes through cant and corners weasels. Carr goes after Sam Zell’s vulgar demolition crew, which brutalized Chicago’s Tribune Co., and this “gotcha” might have made a remarkable movie by itself.

There may never be another glory like the 1971 Pentagon Papers. The paper’s recent alliance with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks pales by comparison. Even the staff theater pundits lack their old, fear-inducing clout. But if we lose the Times, or if it withers into another “info-bundle” for “media-savvy consumers,” then gone forever will be a hub that holds together important social and cultural spokes, which structures and clarifies the daily flood of news, and which helps to make journalism a serious profession. This slightly boastful and deeply fretful film is not another Gray Lady Down.


Viva Riva!

For many of us, Viva Riva! will be our first return to Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, since the fabled 1974 “rumble in the jungle” of boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman was revived in 1996’s When We Were Kings. The equatorial, African nation was then Zaire, and Kinshasa looked somewhat less like the vast, festering dump now seen by director-writer Djo Munga.

Welcome to Munga’s “vision,” a violent flash and septic flush of bright colors and sweaty faces in Third World hell. Welcome to the grinning life of vain, preening Riva (Patsha Bay), a smuggler hustling a truckload of Angolan gasoline. He seduces the tall and torchy mistress (Manie Malone) of a big, dumb gangster, is adored by an urchin, and seems to see himself as a new Zorro or Robin Hood. For all the lewd gropings and torture frolics, the most memorable element is Hoji Fortuna, a sort of best-in-show Snoop Dogg. As César, a dapper Angolan killer, he terrorizes victims and then vows to “be more ruthless.”

Fine in rivalry is Marlene Langange, as a lesbian militia officer ripe and ready to be the ass-blasting Pam Grier of Kinshasa. Monsieur Munga’s vision was probably inspired by City of God, the free-wheeling Brazilian hit about boy thugs. Munga has taken similar elements and dragged them through the gutters of the sleaziest blaxploitation movies. Back in that era, the right title for this picture would have been Mondo Crappo.

Reviewed in this week’s listings: Bad Teacher and Earthwork.

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