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Goats & Quinces

By Richard Skinner.

If you love goats, you’ll love Le Quattro Volte (which translates as ‘The Four Times’). This may be an unusual opening gambit, but never before have goats been as haunting as they are in Michelangelo Frammartino’s film. You can feel their breath on your face and will shiver as they stare at you with their demonic, slitted eyes. They seem preternatural, gazing into the sky and seeing a sun dog or tasting the air with their tongues for an oncoming snowfall. They sense death and flock to transport their beloved goatherd from one world to the next when his time comes. In an interview, Frammartino has said that he filmed the goats in the same way as he films actors and this comes across strongly—the goats are forward and centre in the film.

The central philosophy of Le Quattro Volte is simple—that we each have in our lives four ‘turns’: human, animal, vegetal and mineral. The idea, originally expounded by Pythagoras, is that we humans have, within ourselves, these four successive lives, each one enclosed inside another. We are mineral because our skeleton is made of salt, but we are also vegetal because our blood is like sap and we reproduce. We are animal because we have movement, knowledge of the world around us, memory. And all of these things are what make us human. We are four things and to know ourselves completely, we must know ourselves four times—le quattro volte.

The film is set in Calabria, which is where Frammartino’s family are from, whom Milan-born Frammartino used to visit in the summers. It is also where Pythagoras was born and lived, founding his Pythagorean school in Crotone 2,500 years ago. Calabria has strong animist roots in its culture, elevating animals and nature to the same level of importance and significance as humans, and this is what Frammartino also does, assigning goats, trees, ants and charcoal equal roles as protagonists in the film. It is about metempsychosis, the transmigration of the soul, the journey from one state to another by an invisible soul or spirit. Such a beautiful, profound idea.

The film opens with a screen full of smoke, through which we gradually make out some mysterious large mounds. The wind blows and the smoke swirls. We hear a pounding sound and then see workmen bashing the air out of a scarazzo, a traditional structure of logs used to burn charcoal, with a large wooden bat. Only then do we realise that what we are witnessing is the process of making charcoal. So we are at the mineral stage. The title of the movie comes up and then we switch immediately to the sight of dozens of goats, with their bells, moving over an undulating landscape of verdant hills. Their goatherd is old and ailing. Every day, he lets his flock out onto the hills to graze. He collects snails and sells them to the villagers. Before going to bed, he mixes church dust in water and drinks it to cure a cough. He does these same things every day. But, one night, he loses his church dust and this is the end for him. In an incredible scene, the flock congregates around the bed of the dying goatherd, as if to acknowledge and assist in his passing from one form to another.

The film cuts to the moment a kid is born. He slips out, his white hair covered in mucus and blood. His mother licks him and wills him to stand up. The other goats look on. When he is slightly older, he plays with the other kids while the larger goats are out grazing until he is old enough to join them. Then, one day, the new goatherd, of whom we only see knees and back, takes the flock out and our small white kid is let out with them but struggles to keep up.

Cut to a pine tree, straight and true, in the winter hills. There is snow on the ground. Cut to the same tree in spring. It is chopped down by the local villagers, debranched and debarked and then dragged into the village square, where it is gradually hoisted up for a festival. It must be at least 100 feet tall. A man shimmies up it and, for a moment, there is a play in the game of scale—when an ant crawls over the old goatherd’s face, his face becomes the landscape, the ant tiny in it, just as tiny as the man climbing the tree pole set in a larger landscape. Man is as insignificant as an ant when set against nature itself.

The tree is cut into pieces and carried away to be turned into charcoal. We then see how a scarazzo is actually built—an igloo of wood that starts as a giant game of jenga and pick-up sticks and ends up being covered with hay and grit. Through a hole in the top is dropped burning embers, which ignites the fire within. After a period of time, the scarazzo is dismantled, the charcoal gathered and bagged and sold back to the villagers. The film ends with smoke rising out of one of the village chimneys. And so we have come full circle. The metempsychosis is complete. The soul has transmigrated though all four ‘turns’—from mineral to human, through animal and vegetal and back to mineral. Nothing is permanent, we are just passengers. We are all dust.

If Le Quattro Volte is a film about the cycle of life, then Victor Erice’s El sol del membrillo (which translates as ‘The Quince Tree Sun’) is a still life, a natura morte. Released in 1992, it is a film of one man’s attempt to paint a quince tree. Whereas in Le Quattro Volte, a spirit moves between places and states of being, El sol del membrillo is set and takes place entirely in the courtyard of the painter’s house in Madrid. Its place in the world is fixed. This film does not move; it is about the duration of time in one location.

The first day of the attempt to paint the tree is 30th September. In his trademark striped shirt, the painter, Antonio López García, walks into his garden and inspects the quince tree. He looks up into its branches. He smells the fruit. He brings out some ladders, using them to drive a pole into the ground at four corners around the tree. From these poles, he drops a plumbline to determine verticality. He sets up his easel and, rather like a rugby player about to kick a ball looking at the line the ball will take, stands in front of the easel, looking back and forth between it and the tree to find the best spot to paint from. When he has found it, he plants two thin metal stakes into the ground and pushes the toe of his shoes up against them. This will be the unchanging spot from which he paints. From now on, the film centres on the connection between these two beings—the tree, living quite naturally, and the painter trying to capture that nature.

A shot during the opening titles shows the tools that López will use to make his painting—L-shaped weights, twine, glue, a paintbrush, a plumbline, a pair of compasses, a pencil, a pair of scissors, two thin metal stakes. López takes a highly mathematical approach towards his model and these are the instruments with which he will record the tree and its passage of time. He runs a line of white paint along a brick wall behind the tree to determine horizontality, then draws a corresponding pencil line across his canvas. The plumbline and white line of paint mark his target. He mixes his paints, dips his brush and is ready to start, but instead of applying a brush stroke onto his canvas, he starts marking white lines on the bark, leaves and quinces of the tree. It’s an amazing moment in the film. López hasn’t finished mathematically mapping his subject yet. He needs to apply cross hairs on the various parts of the tree itself in order to map it onto the grid of his canvas.

Time passes, as it will, and autumn closes in. By 12th October, López has a rough sketch down, but the fruit are ripening and, as they drop, so López has to mark new white lines on the quinces. Some of them have so many white lines on them that they look like I-Ching hexagrams. The lines are growth lines and mark the internal movement of the tree. The strongest force in this project is this ripening, and eventual withering, of the quinces.

Erice, of course, takes a similarly mathematical approach towards his subject, placing his camera with equal care, often in the same relationship to the painter that López has with the tree. Erice’s film is orderly, with a strict sense of chronology and a journal format with dates punctuating the film to mark the flow of time and change in the weather. The many shots of cityscapes and clouds remind us of the world outside and the sense of ‘real’ time passing. Family and friends come and go. World events are discussed on the radio. The weather turns and gets the better of López. He is forced to abandon his project. Now in a rush, he prepares another canvas and attempts another painting, but abandons that, too. He takes down his apparatus, the fruit drop.          

All movies have their roots in other movies—not so with El sol del membrillo. It is a unique film whose roots actually lie in the paintings of Velazquez, Vermeer and Cézanne and which belongs to the Spanish tradition of the bodegón painting. The term bodegón was first used in Spain for a rustic eating place and then applied to works combining genre and still life. According to the Diccionario de la lengua castellana (1726), the bodegón is defined as: “canvases where pieces of meat and fish, and poor people’s foodstuffs, are painted.”

The film ends in a series of remarkable flourishes. First, we see López lying down fully-clothed on a bed modelling for his wife’s painting of him. No longer the observer, he is now the observed, the subject, the content. And then, mysteriously, there is a shot of a film camera on a timer filming the quinces lying at the foot of the quince tree at night. An arc light fades up and the camera runs. Erice is filming a camera filming the quinces, which López unsuccesssfully attempted to paint. Layers of commentary. Finally, at night, we see a series of death masks on their shelves, presumably part of the artwork kept in the house by López and his wife. Then we see López’s face bathed in midnight-blue as he lies peacefully on the bed. In voiceover, he narrates various childhood memories, while we see the quinces rot.

The extreme spirituality and realism of El sol del membrillo is set against the ultimate failure of the painter in trying to still and capture the hum, vibration and quiver of life itself. There are many stories on display here—the story of López attempting to paint the quince tree; Erice’s record of López’s struggle; and the final flourishes where we are led out of human endeavour to a more timeless point of view, looking down on death masks and rotting fruit. All flesh is grass. We are all dust.


Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner is a writer working across fiction, life writing, essays, non-fiction and poetry. He has published three novels with Faber & Faber, three books of non-fiction and three books of poetry. His work has been nominated for prizes and is published in eight languages. Richard is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. 
richardskinner.weebly.com @RichardNSkinner

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 11th, 2018.