An elderly goatherd takes his flock out to pasture every day helped by his dog. He has a chronic cough but every night drinks water mixed with dust swept up from the church. One day he drops the packet of dust and that night is unable to wake anyone in the church. He is discovered dead on the day of the village’s Calvary procession. Someone else takes over his herd. A kid goat gets left behind and dies. A tree is cut down and used as a maypole, before being converted to carbon, which the villagers use in their homes.
There is a very long take half-way through Le quattro volte that is its turning point, and in more ways than one. It is literally so: it includes two pans, the camera turning on its axis. Like the camera movement, the take points backwards and forwards, to what has gone before and what is to come. In its imagery it encapsulates the film’s concerns, in its restraint and deliberation its stance.
The camera is positioned high above the village in which, together with the surrounding countryside, the film takes place. On the lower left, at the outset, is the pen where the old man keeps his goats. A van drives up and two Roman centurions jump out; one shoves a stone under the back wheel of the van to prevent it sliding on the steep slope and both run off into the village, the goatherd’s dog barking at them. After some time, a Calvary procession emerges, including the two centurions, and the camera pans right to follow it as it makes its way out of the village; on a hill in the distance, two crucifixes stand out in silhouette; the dog runs after the procession barking, but then runs back to the village, the camera panning back with it. A girl comes running from the village, evidently late for the procession; she is intimidated by the dog’s barking but eventually manoeuvres her way round it and runs after the procession, the dog following her, the camera panning with them; in the distance there is now a third crucifix. Again the dog, and the camera, return to the village, and the dog removes the stone from the back of the van in its jaws, causing the van to run back down the slope, crashing into the goats’ pen.
This take, even within its own bounds, creates the sense of the mysterious within detachedly observed everyday life. The bizarrerie of Roman centurions jumping out of a van lingers until it is explained by the emergence of the procession. We had no prior knowledge of this, though it at once explains a strange, earlier moment in the film, shot from the same position, in which a priest and a girl seem to discuss a veil and she practices genuflecting: only now is it evident they were rehearsing for the Calvary procession (and she may well be the girl late for the procession). Earlier too we had seen a man dragging a length of wood which we can now see was the spine for a crucifix. In these instances, the take points narratively backwards, but it also points forwards. The two crucifixes in the distance indicate that a third is to come; this appears, disclosed by the camera on its second pan to the right, but it is not feasible that the procession could have reached the hill and erected the crucifix in the time it is out of view. One might consider this a sleight of hand, but that would not be characteristic of the film and its appearance as much suggests mystery, and the holiness of mystery in Christian tradition.
A different anticipation of what is to come centres on the dog. Why does it remove the stone from the van? (As striking as the action is the logistics of training the dog to remove the stone after barking and running back and forth and before the shot comes to an end: it took 22 takes.) Why indeed is it barking all the time? – it knows the people, the Calvary procession is unlikely to be a novelty. However, by causing the van to crash into the pen, the dog allows the goats to get out. By mysterious instinct, the goats make their way to the goatherd’s home. He is dead. Presumably the dog has been trying to tell the village people.
Events in the film are explained and yet they still retain a sense of mystery. There is a luminous shot early on of dust dancing in a beam of light streaming into the church. A cleaning woman sweeps up, and then at the altar, tears a strip from a magazine, puts a small quantity of dust on it, neatly folds the strip around it, mutters some words and gives the package to the goatherd. He gives her a bottle of milk and says thank you. This is, significantly, the only audible dialogue in the film: ‘grazie’ (thank you) and ‘Grazia’ (Grace) are virtually the same word. A little later we see the man drinking the dust stirred into water. So far, it seems like observation of a folk Christian superstition. A little later, a packet of dust drops out of the man’s back pocket; the strip has by chance been torn so that an image of a pair of eyes fills one side; it lays in the undergrowth while ants work away underneath, making the packet and the eyes move, entirely explicably and yet also mysteriously. That night, without the dust, he dies – because he was not able to ingest the holy infusion?
This is one of four deaths in the film – the four times of the title: him, Christ, a kid goat and the world. The kid is one that gets left behind as the man who has taken over the herd leads them out to pasture; there is no sign of the dog – before, it or the old man would have rescued the kid. This is in miniature the pattern of care for nature that has been broken.
There are those who read the film in terms of the cyclicality of nature and even reincarnation. This is plausible: the film opens and closes with charcoal burning, a kid dies but one is born, Christ rose from the dead. Yet it seems to me there is an altogether bleaker vision at work. The dog disappears, the kid is left behind and the birdsong diminishes as the film proceeds. A beautiful tree is cut down, stripped of its branches and erected as a maypole, with its cut-off tip affixed to the top of the pole, a pathetic last glimpse of its beauty. Then it comes down again and is turned into charcoal. The last ten minutes or so of the film show the process of charcoal-making in – fascinating – detail. The tree is cut and burnt, the charcoal is delivered to the villagers’ home; the last shot of the film is smoke rising from the chimneys. Renewal – or the finality of death, the gradual attrition of nature?