Slyly and majestically bringing a sense of documentary-like authenticity to his humbling, spiritual portraits of the ways humankind and nature intersect, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino has crafted a compact, staggering body of work. Over a decade after Le Quattro Volte, he returns with Il Buco, a 1960s-set exploration of Europe’s deepest cave in the untouched Calabrian hinterland that also gives much time to the surrounding community and the technology booming both near and far.
As the film arrives in theaters courtesy Grasshopper Film, I spoke with Frammartino about the structure of his work, attention to the landscape, the humbling feeling of seeing cave exploration, and his inspirations in Italian cinema and beyond.
The Film Stage: The structure of this film is quite unique in how you establish the town first, with the ways of life and the influence of television at the time. You get to know the place before we really dive deeper, so to speak. Can you discuss your approach to structure and having the patience of immersion?
Michelangelo Frammartino: First of all, thank you for starting off with this question and posing the question this way about the structure, which for me is so deeply connected to the landscape and to the kind of landscape that we meet. I must say that, essentially, to me, it is the true protagonist of the work. In my work the landscape is not a mere background for the story, but little by little you end up realizing that it is truly the main character. It is the protagonist. So just like you would with a character where at first, so to speak, you see the way they look outwardly and you see the surface, in the film we start from the coast and the sea and it’s where the landscape has its skin, has its surface line. And then there’s a lighthouse scene and then, progressively, you start a new journey to get to know it deeper and deeper to explore this landscape, which I insist is a character. And then progressively you start to penetrate within, and this is what matters most. And eventually, you visit the inside and you end up filming in its heart, if I can say it in a way that can come off as rhetoric, but it’s not meant to be like that. The journey of the movie progressively allows us to get to know this great character, the landscape.
The only figure that belongs to the landscape but does not overlap with the landscape is the shepherd because his face looks like a land we traverse. It can be stone or bark and everything comes through his voice. Everything we perceive about him is based on his verses, which become the voice of the landscape and give it depth. So, in a certain way, he is the other character—which is a separate character, yet he is one with the landscape.
In cinema, it seems like a lot of filmmakers are so interested in the solar system and the stars and looking to the skies, but it’s fascinating to go deeper into our own earth. This idea relates to the spiritual, humbling feeling your films carry; the journey reflects the feelings of burrowing deep into your soul while watching it. How important is this idea to you?
It’s very beautiful, the way you express this thought, and I’m very happy to hear that. I must say that my experience with cave exploration lasted a couple of years, about three years, and it taught me a lot about being humble. And I must say that cave explorers don’t have the experience of triumph that mountain climbers. I say that with all due respect to mountain climbers, but mountain climbers, when they reach the peak of the mountain, it’s a triumph. In Italy, there was the K2 mission, which was conquered by a group of Italians and it was a government-sponsored mission. And they had the politician [Prime Minister Alcide] de Gasperi that supported it. They had Sherpas, thousands of them. The idea was that we needed to win.
On the other hand, in cave exploration, you always lose. It is truly the art of defeat, because when you go down you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know truly where the exploration will lead you. A cave is a mystery. A cave can end 10 meters deep or 20 or it can be over a thousand, and you don’t know when it’s going to end—and when it ends it’s always a sudden discovery. And there is always a sort of sadness or melancholy. Cave explorers are melancholic and this feeling and this perception is something that guided me in building this movie.
Also, it is the only experience of a frontier on our planet. With my son Lorenzo, who is ten years old, we go on Google Earth. He loves exploring the world and we go visit Mount Everest. We go in the Pacific. We go everywhere––except underground. That is still a frontier. There is a relationship with the unknown. And therefore it’s extremely fascinating. It’s not epic because cave explorers don’t have that taste for epic missions. They move the way carpenters do. Everything is very ordinary. And I like that because I don’t believe in cinema as the art of a show. I believe in an experience, which is the experience of the frontier. And we know very well what this means. We know, for example, in cinema how important the frontier was in Hollywood-style Western cinema.
Related to that, I was going to ask about your inspirations. Your hybrid approach to filmmaking is quite fascinating; unsuspecting viewers could believe they are watching a documentary. Can you talk about this filmmaking process and what you look to for inspiration in cinema?
I make feature-length films and I am not too concerned about defining what they are. It is clear that there is a component of ungovernability within my cinema, which generally is a feature that one attaches to documentary cinema. In general terms, popular opinion is that in fiction you have control over the actors, whereas in documentary filmmaking one does not have control because you’re shooting a film where life happens and you’re just filming it as it happens. So we can say that these two components coexist in most cinema and there is a great love for whatever cannot be governed. For me, that is the only way to allow life to enter the frame and my work with animals and with weather conditions that can be challenging. And the headlamps on cave explorers are the only source of lighting, so all of a sudden lighting is going to change with any small movement. So the perception of what we see changes––this for me is very, very important. And in this sense I do have a debt toward documentary filmmaking.
In particular, to talk about documentaries, there is a great, great maestro of Italian documentary filmmaking who is Vittorio De Seta, who also shot on the Pollino mountain and, for example towards the end of the ’50s and in the early ’60s, he was on that very mountain and he was making a wonderful film whose title was I dimenticati, which literally translates to The Forgotten. Therefore we can imagine Vittorio, who was shooting in the very locations where our cave explorers are during their mission. And then there’s an interesting detail in the very last movie that Vittoria made, In Calabria, which was shot in the early ’90s, our shepherd––and I didn’t know this when I picked him––is the very first character that appears on screen in the documentary.
And since you also asked me to mention my cinema inspirations, there are several filmmakers who are very important to me, also, in terms of the relationship with the landscape and nature. There must be an element of love for the cinematographic language and for cinematographic exploration and that must be a significant component of a filmmaker’s work for me to find it interesting. In my education, Roberto Rossellini was extremely important, to focus on Italian filmmakers. And I need to confess that I am rediscovering Pasolini’s work, which as a young man, when I was a student of film, I had a hard time fully understanding, and I’m coming back to it now. And then there are great contemporary filmmakers who are doing great work—like Ulrich Seidl, the Austrian filmmaker. The two most important filmmakers in my education as a young student of cinema in the early nineties were Tsai Ming-liang and Abbas Kiarostami.
Il Buco opens on Friday, May 13 at Film Forum.