The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Le Quattro Volte

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article It is one of those curious paradoxes which states that realism, far from being a truer form of artistic expression, is in fact more fallacious in pretending to be something other than a created work of art. The reaction against realism can be seen throughout the last century and into this: from the Brechtian refusal to be a mirror to the world to Tarantino’s anachronistic soundtracks and constant meta-citations. No longer necessarily an aesthetic Holy Grail, realism has often been distrusted as the studied technique of a well-skilled liar, manipulative in exploiting our sympathy so that we are distracted by illusion, caring more for fictional characters than for the people who actually exist around us.

And yet of course, for all that, reality never really went anywhere. A filmmaker like Ken Loach, say, has happily continued to plough his nineteenth century furrow as if no one had ever read Terry Eagleton. In his brand of social realism - from Cathy Come Home (1966) and Kes (1969) until the more recent (and for him strangely magical) Looking for Eric (2009) - cinema has always been in the service of an often-marginalised social reality that can be represented unequivocally truthfully. For him, it can seem as if the doubts that Theory might have about realism is just so much rarefied navel-gazing, and if art cannot give a voice to the voiceless and bring to light rank injustice then it is hardly worth bothering with at all.

This politically informed use of realism can be put beside a film maker like Michael Haneke, whose view characteristically seems blandly indifferent to anything as comfortingly human as politics. His gaze is that of CCTV camera, occasionally panning left to right and right to left, perhaps triggered by a motion detector, perhaps on a pre-programmed loop. In The Seventh Continent (1989), his debut film, the camera seems fixated on objects as it follows a family’s progress through its morning routine. Door handles; light switches; bathroom taps; cereal bowls. The ‘characters’ for the first twenty minutes or so are no more than simply fingers and hands. The nature of art’s constructed reality is a theme of many of Haneke’s films, particularly Benny’s Video (1992) and Funny Games (1997), but Haneke pulls a double bluff in first creating a credible and highly persuasive reality before pulling the rug from under us. His creation of that reality comes from his formal choices. Actors give low key performances, the style eschews style, a distance is kept, real noise intrudes and music is kept to an absolute minimum. For stretches of time, it feels we could be watching snatches of surveillance tape.


A quasi-documentary style comparable to that offered by Le Quattro Volte has been adopted by many modern film makers. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) and its companion piece Black Swan (2010) both follow their respective protagonists with an over-the-shoulder insistence that comes straight out of fly-on-the-wall television. More flamboyantly, horror movies have had a long history of found footage horror from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) through The Blair Witch Project (1999), to the more recent triumph of the Paranormal Activity (2007-) series (a tradition discussed by Alternate Takes writer Rick Wallace; Ed.). This urgent insistence on the truth of horrific events can in turn be traced throughout gothic literature. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto presented itself as a translation of a found text, while Frankenstein and Dracula both feature letters and journals to lend their narratives an aura of authenticity. That something made-up is based on a true story can add a frisson to our film watching experience, and was held up to ridicule by the Coen brothers, who insisted that Fargo (1996) was based on a true event.


Ultimately, we are reality junkies and Realism, with the help of Endemol, has morphed into Reality. Documentaries have become increasingly open to accusations of straight-forward falsehood. Casey Affleck’s underrated I’m Still Here (2010) rather disappointingly gave the game away early, its director quickly admitting almost everything in the film was faked, and that Joaquin’s meltdown was an elaborate performance worthy of Andy Kaufman. But (and this is a big but) there lingers the sense that filming a documentary, a mockumentary if you will, that involves publically trashing your own image, ruining the publicity campaign of a film you’ve been in and going into a performance of debauched madness for a year and a half is actually, well, mad. The bad taste left by the admission and even more so the shame-faced and apologetic appearance on Letterman had the effect of undoing the good that the film had done. While we were confused, we were fascinated. Once everything was explained it all went from agit-prop to frat-boy. The makers of Catfish (2010) and Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), on the other hand, had no movie star careers to revive and could comfortably maintain the ambiguity behind the veracity of their films, deception for both films being a part of the theme as well as (perhaps) the methodology. (Though see, again, Wallace for a slightly different take on these ideas; Ed.)

Le Quattro Volte features a ten minute take. The goat herder is sick in bed and has not come to the pen where he keeps the animals. They seem agitated. The camera is in its fixed position. A bird’s-eye view allows us to see the pen and the corner of the village, with a road leading out, and the building in which the herder has his rooms. And so, although we can’t see him, his is a present absence. A truck turns up and is parked on the hill. Two Roman centurions emerge and one of them uses a rock (which we earlier saw the goat herder throw out of his window) as a prop to keep the truck from rolling down the hill. They leave their Mary Magdalene in position and rush off to meet the passion play which is making its way through the village. This is all one take remember. The experience is a bit like watching an animated Breughel. Ordinary village folk, going about their business while something miraculous happens in the corner, unanticipated and perhaps even unnoticed. The goat herd’s dog has escaped and worries the woman playing Mary Magdalene, who tries to get by and resorts to throwing stones at the beast. Here we have reality opposed to the contrivances of performance. This is the human condition. Rather than the cosmic tragedy of the Passion, we have a woman who’s scared of being bitten by a dog.


The parade marches by, unaware that the window under which it marches and the bothersomeness of the dog are actually indicators that a man is dying. The dog, uncertain what to do, dislodges the rock underneath the truck’s wheel and then scampers off to follow the parade. The camera follows the dog as the truck begins to roll down the hill. We hear the sound of a crash. When the camera eventually returns to its initial position we see that the truck has smashed into the goat pen and now the goats are everywhere.

I’ve recounted this scene in detail - partly because it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and the details deserve to be noticed, but also because it is a central example of how this film uses a documentary style (or quasi-documentary as many reviews of the film term it) to cover its own contrivances. The reality of what we see is as much a performance as the Passion play with its incongruous and misplaced solemnities - it is simply a more convincing piece of artfulness. There’s the novelistic detail, the use of the stone (which was ineffectively used to keep the lid on a pan of snails in an earlier scene), which connects the stories together. The pan away from the action as it follows the dog allows the filmmaker to control the crash (that we hear, but don’t see) and make sure no goats get hurt. The deus-ex-machina actions of the dog and the fact that no truck in Calabria seems to have a functioning handbrake allows the goats to escape and go and look for their master in an emotionally satisfying if somewhat Disney-esque final farewell.


To raise the question of objective reality here might seem misplaced, or even spoil-sport, since the film has definite pleasures to offer - the beauty of the images and a sly wit principle among them. But there is a point to asking such questions and interrogating such a film. Poetry shouldn’t get a pass.

The goat herder has been ill for some time. He has been coughing and he looks frail. We see him taking medicine - a black powder he mixes with water and drinks down before bed. Later we discover that this powder is in fact the charcoal dust swept from the floor of the church and given to the farmer by an old woman in exchange for goat’s milk. He believes this is helping him. We might be pardoned for worrying that it is doing him more harm than good. Later, he loses the medicine and, unable to obtain more, never rises from his bed again. Okay, maybe it’s the placebo effect. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, as long as you believe in something. The old man dies and is then reborn as a goat. The goat dies near a tree. The tree is chopped down and turned into charcoal. And now we understand. The old man died of a metaphor. He had to take the charcoal so that he would be connected to the tree and the goat and… the circle of life.

The quasi-documentary style is linked inextricably to the perceived authenticity of the old man and his beliefs, his vanishing way of life. His authenticity in turn is posited as part of a larger cosmic comedy. It is this insistence on authenticity and deeper truth that ultimately led me to feel that this film was, in a strange way, deeply wrong. I couldn’t help but think he should have gone to the doctor. Wishing otherwise seems a callous form of romanticism.

This Alternate Take was published on October 09, 2011.

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