'Caves are the roots of heaven'

It is that Werner Herzog his spectacular 3D film about the caves of Chauvet al Cave of Forgotten Dreams because it had been the perfect title for Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino’s new film. His third feature film is now simply called Il buco – the hole.

Because that’s what he found when he was taken some ten years ago by the mayor of Alessandria del Carretto in Calabria, who is also a speleologist, to the nearby Abisso del Bifurto, a 700-meter-deep vertical cave in the Pollino Mountains. . An unsightly hole in the ground. At least if you look at it from the outside. A phenomenal shot at the beginning of the film lets us look into the sky from the inside out from the cave. It is the birth canal of the movie. As a spectator, you think for a moment that you are floating. And perhaps those are the forgotten dreams for Frammartino that he makes his films about.

Mythical landscape

Frammartino (1968) was scouting locations at the time, he says in a video call, for what is probably his best-known film, the arthouse favoriteLe quattro volte (2010). For almost all of his films, the Milan-born filmmaker returns to his parents’ native soil, where he films modest stories in an awe-inspiring, sometimes almost mythical, landscape. They are always films about the big and the small at the same time. Le quattro volte focuses on the life of a goat herder, but it is inspired by the theory of the mystic-mathematician Pythagoras who said that every human being has four lives inside: an animal, a human, a vegetable and a mineral. It was slow cinema at its best. If you look at everyday life long enough, it will show itself in all its poetry, tragedy and absurdity. Frammartino has an eye especially for the latter. It is the same kind of dry humor that we also see in Il buco, when a ball flies back and forth over that hole in the ground during a game of football.

That Bifurto cave never let go of him. A few years before his birth, a group of adventurous cave explorers had descended all the way to the bottom to map him for the first time. Could he somehow cinematically translate that expedition? It became his first ‘costume film’: he reconstructed the world of the 1960s and linked the expedition of the young speleologists to the life of the shepherds and farmers in Calabria, while film fragments provide glimpses into a world beyond. Parallel to this, the film also tells the story of an old sheepherder who slips into the last days of his life: “Maybe it’s all his dream, or his vision of death, I’ll leave that to you. The film navigates between the visible and the invisible, between the known and the unknown, between mountains and caves. Speleologists call subterranean caves “the roots of heaven,” just like trees whose roots extend below the ground as far as their branches in the air. And there are other parallels: cave systems with their branches also resemble the human nervous system.”

it was black

In preparation for the mental and physical challenges of shooting underground, he spent three days and two nights in a cave in Sicily. Frammartino: „A kilometer under the mountains and a total maze. In such a cave it is perpetual night. It is always and everywhere dark. When I went to sleep the first night there were lights from the headlamps everywhere and noise from the voices of the other cave explorers. I woke up in the middle of the night. I opened my eyes, but there was nothing. It was black. Again and again I opened and closed my eyes, but it made no difference. I had what most resembled a panic attack. It was totally disorienting. There was no longer any difference between my body and the space around it.”

Statues from Abiso del Bifurto

Since then, Frammartino has been a fanatic amateur caver, although that first existential experience never left him. He accidentally discovered the book published in the late 1940s The mystery of the memory that the French geologist François Ellenberger wrote during the five years he spent as a prisoner of war in a German concentration camp. Ellenberger views his own inner life and memories in this the same way he studied the Earth as a scientist. I am always looking for that kind of metaphorical connection between apparent opposites.”

Thus the film opens with old newsreel footage of the Pirelli Tower built in Milan in 1961: “While on one side of Italy the tallest skyscraper until then was being built, on the other people descended into the deepest depths of the earth .” The 1960s were not only a period of great economic growth and prosperity in Italy, says Frammartino: “Everyone looked up. That vertical thinking was an expression of the optimism of those days. 1961 was a pivotal year. Besides the construction of the Pirelli Tower, it was also the year when alpinist Walter Bonatti attempted to reach the highest peak of Mont Blanc and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went into space and orbited the Earth. You could say that’s why my film is going the other way.”

Film is of course the art of light, but Il buco (which incidentally does not only take place underground, and therefore always feels spatial) is also a film that visually takes a different direction. “The darkness, the real black, was the biggest challenge. For cameramen, black is their biggest fear, because you can never get it right. If the film image is black, especially in the days of analog cinema, then a mistake had been made. How do you make something visible in black? We experimented endlessly and finally filmed only with the light of the speleologists’ headlamps. Just as the speleologists went in search of the unknown, and had to find that they always had something familiar against that known, for became visible when they shone their light on it, so we also went in search of that which you cannot see, the invisible. We wanted to make the impossible visible. Black is the final frontier of cinema.”

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