Il Buco – known as The Hole in English – is a slow movie. I feel like that has to be stated up top. It’s resistant to any sort of plot, features almost no spoken dialogue and moves with all of the urgency of a tortoise accompanying his snail buddy on a leisurely trip to the shops. With that said, director Michelangelo Frammartino has constructed an often fascinating and always beautiful snapshot of a clash between nature and human endeavour, which frames both as equally welcome.
The film is set in the early 1960s and recreates the real-life exploration of the Bifurto Abyss in the Calabria region of Italy – one of the world’s deepest caves, finishing at 687 metres below the surface. Frammartino dedicates his film to the real explorers who plotted the network of tunnels, but he’s just as interested in depicting the bucolic milieu of the world above ground. Renato Berta’s cinematography fills the frame full of light when we’re amid the jaw-dropping vistas of the countryside and skilfully manages the absence of light in the scenes set below ground, illuminating portions of the frame while allowing the darkness to seep in elsewhere.
Frammartino has form in the world of “slow cinema”, with his previous film – 2011’s goat farming movie Le Quattro Volte – similarly emerging as a dreamy soak in the bath of nature rather than a pulse-pounding work of narrative fiction. Il Buco is all about tone and the tension Frammartino eases out of the story between those who seek to explore, understand and map out the natural world and those who are prepared simply to observe and appreciate its mysteries.
The former group is embodied by the speleologists who arrive in the sleepy, intimate village near the abyss. When their truck scythes its way through the verdant green of the fields around the cave, causing cows and sheep to step aside, it feels deeply and viscerally wrong – like a mechanised interloper cutting into a world uninterested in the march of technology.
This is watched by the embodiment of the aforementioned natural observer – a shepherd (Paolo Cossi) who spends his days perched on a nearby hill. His face is craggy and fascinating, as if his wrinkles could age him and the land around him like the rings in the trunk of a tree. The second half of the movie draws a parallel between his health and the actions of the explorers, as if his fate is woven into that of the land he watches over. It’s as if he’s the last bastion and protector of centuries-old traditions, feeling every step of modern progress like a punch to the chest.
While there’s an undeniable richness to the themes at play in Il Buco, its utter refusal to deal in any sort of narrative renders it a somewhat frustrating watch. It feels more like a gallery piece than a movie, dealing in a series of tableaux through the eyes of an entirely stationary camera. Frammartino’s lens watches, but never draws attention to itself, as if the film itself is afraid of damaging the landscape or clouding the purity of what it’s depicting.
It’s an odd viewing experience, with lengthy periods of languorous tedium occasionally interrupted by an arresting image or an amusing, half-accidental burst of personality. The opening frames see cows peeking down into the cave as if pondering a spelunk of their own, while one sequence sees a horse poke its head into one of the explorer’s tents, only to lose interest in their sleeping bodies. These flashes of life in its strangeness are when the movie is at its best.
But ultimately, it’s the resonant idea of eras meeting and shifting that sits at the heart of Il Buco. As the movie ends, the previously sun-baked fields of Calabria become shrouded in mist as if they’re about to emerge, Stars in Their Eyes-style having reshaped into something entirely different. Not worse necessarily, but different.
Il Buco is playing as part of the BFI London Film Festival
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