Ashes to Ashes – Dust to Dust

in 7th Reykjavík International Film Festival

by Louise Kidde Sauntved

Inspired by Pythagoras’ belief in four-fold migration, the Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino shows us how nature and the lives of humans are inseparable and interconnected, and he does so without using a single line of dialogue. The story is set in an old Italian village, where life seems to be lived in the same way it has been for centuries. The protagonists are as diverse as they are surprising: an old shepherd, a baby kid and an old stately tree, which is cut down and used for the coal, that is so crucial to keeping the villagers warm throughout the winter.

As the title, and the inspiration-source, indicates, the film is told in four interconnected episodes, each a small visual poem, celebrating life in all its forms. The pace is slow, mimicking the way time is seemingly standing still in the old village, but infused with such warmth and played-down humour, that it never drags but feels fresh and new throughout.

In the first segment, we are introduced to the old shepherd, who is about to draw his last breath, but still carries on with his daily chores as goatheards before him have done for centuries. He keeps the grim reaper at arms lenght with a daily dosage of dust from the church floor, blessed by the nuns, which he accepts as payment for goatmilk to the church and drinks every night at bedtime, dissolved in a glass of water.

One day, however, the daily dosage of this special medicine is lost in the field. In desperation the old man goes to the church and bangs on the door, the noise resounding in the quiet night, but no one can hear him. The next morning he is found dead in his bed, discovered by the villagers because his very clever sheepdog manages to remove a rock from under a parked truck, thereby causing it to crash into the goatpen. This scene is so masterfully executed in a single shot, it makes you wonder how anyone could train a dog to do such a trick!

The old shepherd is entombed, and in the darkness we hear his soul flutter on to it’s next incarnation — a little baby-kid, born right before out eyes. The following twenty or so minutes we witness the little goats playing, discovering the world that they have been born into and eagerly awaiting the sweet music of the bells of the older goats returning to the pen. It is a scene full of joy and playfulness, but nature can be cruel. It gives and takes in equal measures, and the next morning the little kids are allowed out into the field with the adult goats.

This little kid, however, is left behind in a ditch, and desperately tries to find his flock before the night falls. His bleats sounds like a baby calling for it’s mother, as he is wandering aimlessly further and further away from his flock, in a scene as heartbreaking as any human drama. When the night finally does fall, he rests his tired little body under a big old conifer, and we realize with regret that this tree will most likely be his final resting place. He will die there, his short life absorbed into the roots of the giant tree, that sways over the forest, soon covered by snow in the winter time and brought to new life by the blessing rays of spring sunshine.

But alas, even the king of the forest can be defeated. In a seemingly tradtional rite of spring, the villagers cut down this giant, and take it to the forest, where it is raised in the main square, prizes attached to its top. The most adventurous of the young men tries to climb the three to get a headstart, before the tree is cut down yet again, to allow everyone in the village, big and small, to get a part of nature’s abundant gifts, thereby showing us how dependent the villager are of the gifts of the nature that surrounds them.

The tree, or the wandering soul one could call it by now, has then reached it’s final destination. It is cut into smaller pieces, and in a marvellous scene, the wood is structured as a sort of outdoor oven, covered with straw, dirt and small twigs, which is burned from the inside to turn the solid logs into coal, again in a ritual that seems to be ageless. The spirit of the tree drifts into the sky in enigmatic wafts of smoke, making us wonder if there is yet another incarnation of this soul to be found somewhere out there in the big world that surrounds the seemingly isolated village.

The Four Times is a film that tells us that no man, however much we have been led to think so over the years, should be superior to the surrounding nature, which needs to be respected. It is an ode to the universal soul of this world, that connects us all. And one of the real feats of Michelangelo Frammartino’s masterly execution is, that The Four Times conveys this eco-message without ever feeling preachy. He simply shows us the ways of the world, in understated yet powerful images, and leaves the audience to do the thinking. To connect the dots, so to speak, and form his or her own interpretation of the small glimpses of lives — as lived by the goatherd, the baby-kid, the villagers and the stately tree in the forest. He urges us to see the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary and to maybe pay a little more attention to the world we live in, on screen as well as off screen.

By removing all dialogue, only allowing muted sounds of conversation, just out of earshot, the singing of the wind and the melodic music from the goat’s bells to carry us though his visual poem, he reminds us of the days, before words entered the world of film. The days where the image was king, and every inch of the frame was scrutinized for meaning by the adventure hungry audience, who were not yet used to being lulled into being mere spectators by words, that tells us what to think and how to interpret what we have before out very eyes. In a way, one could say, that Michelangelo Frammartino reminds us what the medium of film is, used to be and can be, if other filmmakers out there are as bold as he, and dares to let the audience participate in the creation of the small wonder we call cinema.