Il Buco

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Il Buco
"The group of speleologists in Il Buco are housed in the storage room of a church, a sublime decision by the filmmakers that gives Berta ample opportunity to visually connect the scientists of the early Sixties with the splendour of Renaissance paintings." | Photo: Doppio Nodo Double Bind/Co-production Office

Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco (The Hole), co-written with Giovanna Giuliani, looks tenderly, elegantly, discerningly at humanity’s topsy-turvy preoccupations through the expert eye of the great cinematographer Renato Berta (an Alain Resnais regular). Bird sounds start the film, as we see the sky from below, from the perspective of a cave with a vaguely horseshoe-shaped opening.

Upside-down trees resemble the Alberi, men in traditional tree costumes, featured in Frammartino’s fabulous installation film which had its world premiere at MoMA PS1 during the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013, and where I first spoke to Michelangelo after being introduced by Artistic Director Frédéric Boyer at the reception. I mentioned to him then the art installation called Meeting by James Turrell, which consists of a waiting room with a hole in the ceiling from where one can observe the changes in the New York City sky as they happen approximately 20 minutes before sundown.

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The Calabrian landscape of Il Buco (a highlight of the 59th New York Film Festival) is filled with the sound of animal bells, curious cows flapping their ears, individual trees with more character than many an actor, and mist rising over the valley. A shepherd talks “oh-oh-eh-eh” to his flock, to the mountain, as his donkey waits on the path. Same spot; they know, we know.

During the same month in 1961 when the completed Pirelli Tower in Milan stretched to the heavens, an expedition of speleologists went deep underground in Calabria to explore the Bifurto Abyss, the second deepest cave in the world. On a small TV screen in the village, footage of the brand-new skyscraper far north shows people in offices, working on the 24th floor, from the perspective of a window washer.

In Calabria, people arrive at the train station with a lighthouse blinking afar. The men wear white shirts and good pants mostly, some are in military garb. Meanwhile in a brook the local women wash the laundry and a beautiful white cow with her calf inspects what is going on. Animals are omnipresent. In a big city you may forget that birds are everywhere. In the village there are dogs and chickens running freely, cats stretch on the roofs as naturally as a dentist checks on a schoolboy’s teeth on the cobblestone street.

The group of speleologists in Il Buco are housed in the storage room of a church, a sublime decision by the filmmakers that gives Berta ample opportunity to visually connect the scientists of the early Sixties with the splendour of Renaissance paintings. The sounds of the sermon do not counter those of men sitting around a fire and sometimes we are not sure whether a donkey or a human is speaking to us.

The shepherd, the real ruler of the mountain, precisely because he is an observer and a witness, has a fantastic face with big ears and wrinkles that resemble a rock formation. The freshly arrived explorers with their helmets and maps begin to discover the life of the past that was more one of darkness than now.

There is a nighttime procession in town, the kids are excited. The procession snakes by the collective TV at a bar, where the whole town can watch a variety show with dancing girls in black and white, of course. Various strands of nostalgia are triggered here and Frammartino makes sure that emotional shortcuts lead nowhere. There is a depth to the mysteries of the earth that we have barely started to try and understand.

At daybreak, the scientists awake in the church storeroom, next to Jesus on the cross, who rests on the floor just as they did. They drive to “the hole” which gives the film its title. At the entrance to the underworld, they toss a stone down and set on fire pages from a magazine featuring pictures of Sophia Loren, John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon.

The interior of the cave and the way it is lit by merely the helmet lamps, could not be further from the fake Hollywood sets we are so used to from decades of adventure movies and CGI trickery (such as the Indiana Jones franchise and its offspring). Different monsters are lurking here. Parts of the rock formation resemble meat, a shiny liver, tree bark, a wound - and never a full picture, always fragments. Completion an impossible wish. A Japanese friend of mine many years ago coined the phrase “a pain in the earth” - an apt description of much of the memory of the world.

Up above, we revisit the spot where the shepherd and the donkey had congregated (the magical) three times before. Now he is gone. At the campground, the explorers are greeted by a horse looking into one of the tents. Someone is playing with a ball across the abyss. Our perspective is from below. More and more we are put into a claustrophobic point-of-view.

On a lake underground in a rubber boat, crawling into a crevice without a mask, a birth canal into the center of the Earth, or left behind in the boarded-up hut of a shepherd who no longer resides in it - what is the price to pay for this knowledge? Is there a price or a prize in the end? The mysteries are boundless, topographical drawings can blow away in the wind as the voice of the dead echoes in the mountains.

Reviewed on: 17 May 2022
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Drama based on the true adventures of a group of young speleologists who in 1961 descended into a hole in the mountains of Calabria to explore what was then the third-deepest known cave on Earth.

Director: Michelangelo Frammartino

Writer: Michelangelo Frammartino, Giovanna Giuliani

Starring: Paolo Cossi, Jacopo Elia, Denise Trombin, Mila Costi, Carlos José Crespo, Leonardo Larocca, Angelo Spadaro, Nicola Lanza, Antonio Lanza, Claudia Candusso

Year: 2021

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: Italy, France, Germany


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