Exploring one of the world’s deepest caves through ravishing imagery, Michelangelo Frammartino’s latest film titled Il Buco (The Hole), is another observational and elegiac docu-narrative that merges history and scenery. Granted exclusive access to the Calabrian plateau on the uncharted coast of the hinterland in Southern Italy, the film is captured with luminous landscape cinematography with footage that shows the magnificent cave that transports the viewer to experience something meditative and woozy, just like Frammartino’s 2010 masterpiece La Quattro Volte (which made my 2011 Top 10 list). The film is a very ethereal expedition that is minimal in dialogue, plotless, and just observes a small group of cave explorers who travel down into a remote sinkhole where Frammartino opens the film up with a massive skyscraper building being built during the 60s in Northern Italy during the economic boom.
The Calabrian is known as Italy’s secret underground caves. The hole goes deep, and we venture with a group of expediters around the collapsed sink hole that could have once been part of a civilization some 30,000 years ago. The film is stylistically similar to La Quattro Volte in that the hole appears to be a part of the Calabrian countryside–the same setting Frammartino previously explored–and we go really deep into the hole for this journey. The cave holds a mystic power that hovers as a spiritual presence in the film that is both beautiful and mysterious. You can also feel an impending doom as ancient civilizations and cities once were at a peak at some time, only for them to collapse by the earth’s forces of nature.
With no interviews, Frammartino observes the landscapes that surround the cave while also juxtaposing the moving clouds with a stark overcast that hangs over the hills, and with a local village of villagers watching television and drinking beer, where we see elderly men staying warm at night by a campfire. While Le Quattro Volte had more of a narrative to it about the cycles of life, Il Buco is more of an observation of the decay and inevitable, how buildings, civilizations, and humanity always feel invincible in its era will eventually reach their demise.
Frammartino also intercuts these observations with those of a local hermit who observes the expedition crew from his hillside home. Frammartino frames the hermit, similar to the dying farmer in Le Quattro Volte, with 30-degree low-angle close-ups of the man observing the crew from above on a steep hill. The man becomes ill and he begins slowly dying, very much like the subject did in Le Quattro Volte. He certainly serves as a film observer, but Frammartino has done this before with more spiritual and compelling results.
The film’s observations become more apparent, however, once the film offers its glimpse inside the hole–a darkly underground abyss of mystique, wonder, and endless possibilities of history and surveying of rocks, lave tubes, and sea caves that were once primitive. Frammartino is certainly in awe of what he’s revealing, and his rhapsodic long takes and imagery reveal themes of civilization and demise come through with intercuts of archival footage of the skyscraper being built and back to the cave, where we see old magazines of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon featuring on the covers washed up in the cave waters. In many ways, it becomes a commentary on how things that appear to be so iconic and grandiose in their era–as something as historic as two ex-presidents–will eventually decay and could evaporate into nothingness, as we only have a fragment of knowledge of the history of prior civilizations.
The film inevitably grows tiresome outside of the cave as it takes on more commentary on the modern age, as he uses archival footage of the skyscraper being built, and we see footage of a small town outside the Calabrian of men outside a local bar watching TV of a jazz number. These images show outside civilization outside Calabria, but they don’t particularly add much depth, as they seem skimmed through. The camera work, which consists mostly of outdoor scenes and static shots, is all beautifully framed, with many memorable shots of the camera at a low angle looking up at the sky as cows look over them. There is another shot of men kicking a soccer ball back and forth over all that gives some spirit.
There are moments when Frammartino’s points come across as very contrived and obvious, which seems at odds with the sensory style he’s a master of. Fortunately, he allows nature, imagery, and scenery to set in, which allows the viewer to be pulled in by the transcending atmosphere and hypnotic nature that has deep moments of silence with lush sounds of wind, nature, and night crickets. Overall, Il Buco is a gorgeous meld of sight and sound that will put you in daze with its trance-inducing images and mesmeric enchantment.
Il Buco will be playing screening at the Detroit Institute of Arts 3:00 & 7:00 p.m. Sat, Aug 6 | 2:00 p.m. Sun, Aug 7, 2022 Please visit Il Buco | Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (dia.org) for tickets and showtime information.