Michelangelo Frammartino’s film is told in four chapters, loosely corresponding to four stages of life. It’s a beautifully shot film that is a quiet meditation on existence. Did I say quiet? There is no dialogue, other than ambient voices mixed in with the sounds of goats bleating, their bells chiming, the barking of a dog, the sounds, yes the sounds that a meadow makes just by being.
The film opens with a man on his roof stamping out the smoky embers with a blanket that have landed there. Embers from the hearths of the village. Remember this scene. The fuel for these hearths will come around again in a lovely symmetry. Switch to an elderly goat herder (the same man?) as he rests under a tree. The routine of existence – but the beauty of life as well – is emphasized with the slide show of pasture, village, pasture, village. Filmed in the valleys of southern Italy’s Calabria, life there seems a timeless existence. The goat-herder (he’s very old) is shown trading goat’s milk for medicine, which he stirs up in a glass of water by his bedside each night. The “medicine” is actually dust swept from the floor of the church that he believes has benefits – spiritual or otherwise.
Out one day with his flock, he loses his pouch which contains his concoction. He only discovers this later that night as he searches his pockets. Such is his faith in the necessity of this routine that he gets dressed and tries to raise someone at the door of the church. He knocks, knocks again. Tugs at the door…but there is no answer. He falls ill in the night. The next scene we see looks to be a funeral procession through the village. Can it be the herder’s? We see all his goats in the fenced in yard, the herders faithful dog nervously barking at the villagers. A red truck that has been parked loses its brakes and crashes through the fence backwards. The goats scatter. Inside, there are now goats throughout the house. One on the kitchen table, some in the herders bedroom. The herder lies dying in his bed, then we do see his funeral procession.
The next sequences are the heart of the film for me. Very lovely and reverent. We see the herder’s crypt as it is walled in. The camera looks out from the crypt and the screen goes black as the crypt is sealed. Death has come to the man. But outside a goat is seen dropping a calf. She licks the afterbirth as the calf struggles to stand on its own, finally getting its equilibrium and finding its mothers milk. As the calf suckles, the mother looks to the sky. Goose bumps.
Meanwhile, the flock has found another home. This goat herder, as the old man did, takes them out to pasture each day. The young born calf (this is some time after, one supposes)
takes up the rear of the flock. We see a small, shallow crevasse in the landscape as the flock leaps to the other side. As they head off we glimpse the young calf (recognizable for its white color and brown markings and the small harness the herder had put on him) bleating in the crevasse. When we see that he has gotten out, the flock has long gone. The calf settles down under a large pine tree. We see snow. The sunny pastures. Winter has come and gone and spring has emerged. There is no sign of the calf as we are left to ponder its fate. Perhaps the calf did not survive the winter. Our eyes follow the tree trunk up and up to the top and the sky above. The tree begins to move and it topples. A group of villagers has cut it down.
The tree is moved to the village center and erected in some traditional ritual. Later to be chopped up into logs as a sort of kiln is built and the tree burns up inside, leaving fuel for the hearths of the village. One comes away from the film with an understanding of rural village life that may surprise you. Indeed an understanding of life itself . This is one of those films that has the potential to make you see the world in a new way if you would only pay attention. Please do.