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- Reviewed at BFI London Film Festival 2021
From the vantage point of the ageing shepherd, implacably gazing out across the Calabrian landscape, the opening of the Bifurto cave system is barely visible. Instead, it is a scar running across the surface, a hint of a shallow depression that offers little suggestion of the expanse navigable below. Similarly, Michelangelo Frammartino’s meditative Il Buco, the director’s first feature film since his philosophically-minded Le Quattro Volte, might at first glance seem slight, but it reveals its profundity when you dig a little deeper.
The film depicts a 1961 expedition by a troupe of Piedmontese speleologists who travel to rural Calabria to chart a previously unmapped cave which transpired to be, at the time, the third deepest in the world. Using their descent as the structural framework for his narrative, Frammartino follows his group of actor-speleologists into the hole, portraying their methodical journey under the earth from a mid-distance, with the specifics of dialogue barely audible and only natural light to illuminate the environment around them. Frammartino and his cinematographer, Renato Berta, revel in the inky abyss. Initially, light leaks into the frame from overhead but soon the cave walls are thrown into relief when a head torch is shone against them or a piece of burning paper is thrown over the precipice to gauge the depth of the next shaft. As such, the compositions feel alive, with different areas of the screen appearing and disappearing as a head turns.
Punctuating this ongoing delve into the black are trips to the surface. Taking inspiration from the fact that speleologists often strike up friendships with local shepherds, with their unparalleled knowledge of the surrounding terrain, Frammartino and his co-screenwriter, Giovanna Giuliani, place the exploration of the cave in concert with the story of a local herdsman. He watches serenely from the mountainside; the gentle jangle of cowbells only interrupted by his wordless calls to reassure and reorientate his bovine charges. The interplay of light and dark is different up in the daylight, but no less important with shafts of light adorning the Pollino massif through low hanging clouds, while ridges rise in the blue distance and the herder’s calls reverberate among them. He is regularly shot against the landscape in such a way that he feels like a part of it. The lines and creases of his aged face resemble the weathered appearance of the cracked tree bark behind him. As the film continues and he falls ill, his body seems to become the mountain. The editing between the cave and the surface now gives the impression of the speleologists charting their way into his body: his breath becomes the wind whistling through a subterranean tunnel, a doctor’s torch shone into his eye is suddenly a headlamp lighting the spelunkers on their way.
It is in considering these reflections and moments of editorial interplay that the various political or metaphysical readings of Il Buco begin to reveal themselves. Perhaps most clear among these is the relationship between the explorers coming from the Italian north of il boom economico and the more old-fashioned bucolic life of the south. In an early scene, the people of the nearby village gather around a single shared television set to watch a news report on the Pirelli Tower in Milan, its impressive 127 meters a shining symbol of il boom and a clear contrast to the downward exploration of the speleologists, whose 700-meter descent puts the skyscraper into perspective. The profundity of the natural world dwarfs the scale of human achievement and, as the shepherd grows more ill, the span of mere human existence. Yet, human endeavour and inquisitiveness forms the core of the film.
The ancient philosophical idea of Plato’s cave contrasts the image of people chained to a cave wall and capable of understanding the world only through the shadows cast against its surface with philosophers, who free themselves and seek higher knowledge. Frammartino’s cave arguably inverts this idea, sending the speleologists into the cave in search of a hidden, undiscovered knowledge. But the director also complicates such didacticism by suggesting the equal merit of the shepherd’s more quotidian, but perhaps deeper, understanding. As his life nears its end, so does the speleologists’ journey to the bottom of the cave, but the ultimate inevitability of both outcomes ties together human curiosity and exploration with the leading of a good life. As the shepherd’s calls echo through the mist at the film’s end, an image of John F. Kennedy in a magazine carried by the speleologists comes to mind, and though this specific race is run, new frontiers continue to emerge.