“Il Buco,” Reviewed: The Banal and the Sublime in a Cave of Wonders

The use of archival footage to anchor a drama in a historical time is a commonplace, but Michelangelo Frammartino relies on it in his latest film, “Il Buco” (“The Hole”), for a more substantive purpose. (The movie opens Friday at Film Forum.) The action, set in 1961, is based on the true story of a group of speleologists who explore a previously uncharted cave, near a remote and rural town in southern Italy, which turns out to be one of the deepest known. (It goes seven hundred metres beneath the earth’s surface.) Early in the film, Frammartino shows a handful of villagers paying no mind to the region’s natural splendours. They’re gathered at a darkened bar, staring at a black-and-white TV set of the era as if it were a movie screen, watching a news show in which a jovial TV host rides a suspended scaffold up the side of a Milan skyscraper in order to convey the perspective of a window-washer.

Surprisingly and delightfully, Frammartino lets the clip run for about two minutes, showing views of the city below and peering in the skyscraper windows to watch desk jockeys at work. The prominently featured clip sets up an overt contrast by which the entire film can be defined. Where the TV host goes up above the city, Frammartino’s camera goes down below the earth’s surface; where the TV host describes what’s being seen, Frammartino offers no analysis or commentary; where the host chats volubly with colleagues on the scaffold, the movie offers hardly any dialogue at all; where the broadcast camera probes impatiently and catches people in fleeting detail, the movie camera is patient and observational, allowing viewers to engage in their own unguided contemplations—to look and find out for themselves.

I’d rather have seen more of that broadcast—or something like it—for the hour-and-a-half span of “Il Buco” rather than the feature-length drama about the cave and its explorers that Frammartino actually co-wrote (with Giovanna Giuliani) and directed. The film’s peculiar emphasis on that clip asserts a distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the banal and the sublime that emerges in the dramatization of the explorers’ adventure. In one sense, the aesthetic premise distinguishes Frammartino from many more conventional directors, who are content merely to depict the salient informational details of their scripts. Frammartino’s effort to craft a form and a style of a sublimity worthy of the singular landscape and a singular adventure he’s filming is all too rare. But that quasi-documentary principle also puts his willful aestheticism under sharp scrutiny.

As the team of speleologists arrives in the area at dawn, by train from Milan, the film offers majestic perspectives—the beams of a lighthouse over vast hills and plains—as seen from on high, from platform-like standpoints that are devised to be photogenic. The characters appear to be slight and small presences in their midst. What isn’t small in these landscapes is the filmmaker, whose sense of rapture might as well be superimposed on these panoramic vistas like extreme closeups in swoon. The adventurers gather their belongings and board a truck that’s carting them on rocky dirt roads to the deep country—and their talk, as they sit together, remains unheard. The elderly herdsman walks, with his donkey, to visit the residents of a distant wooden house; villagers are gathered at a church service; spelunkers meet by night and pore over what looks like maps—not in absolute silence but from a distance that renders their few murmurs of talk indistinct. Children, seen in a group from above, frolic by night in the village’s alleys with the adventurers’ lighted helmets on their heads. Frammartino loves images but is uninterested in the people he depicts.

The exploration, too, remains vague and pictorial. It’s fascinating to see the explorers, at the beginning of their mission, toss rocks and burning papers into the hole; one can imagine they’re estimating depths, gaining glimpses, maybe even testing for oxygen. But the film leaves their reasons and their reasoning unclear. The elaborate rigging of a rope ladder to enable the mighty descent is voided of its physical details, its practicalities, its exertions, and, above all, of the intricate thought behind it. “Il Buco” is a movie about scientists and researchers whose mission to the cave is the product of elaborate planning and analysis, in which virtually every move embodies a vast substructure of ideas. These explorers are people who don’t leave their lives or thoughts behind when they travel to location, and whose relationships form and shift while at work. These people are of no interest to Frammartino. Even when they plumb the depths of the cave, Frammartino devotes his attention to the cave and not to them, seemingly placing the expedition under the sign of eternity and in unity with inhuman nature—as if he had immediate access to both. He doesn’t provide a personal point of view that might reveal the landscape in the light of active experience. The spelunkers are shown looking, but the film doesn’t see what they see. I spent their descent craving a view from a GoPro on their helmets—the feeling that a person goes deep into a cave, sees his or her own footsteps, touches the walls, rounds corners, and experiences the shock of discovery.

When the movie comes close to a clear point of view—as when, already deep underground, two explorers throw a burning page far down into a forbidding extremity of the cave—the jolt is powerful even as it also provides a welcome relief from the detached blankness of the film’s predominant run of ponderously impersonal images. When the movie observes the anecdotal lives of villagers surrounding the explorers, it’s with a kitschy cuteness, as when two boys kick a soccer ball back and forth over the cave mouth (guess what happens) or with dewy sentimentality when death comes calling. Yet the movie’s dominant strain is a strange vanity, as if embracing a God’s-eye view that the filmmaker somehow shares.

Of course, the sheer fact of filming nearly a half-mile down, in awe-inspiring and terrifying darkness, by the mere light (so it seems) of helmet lamps, is an impressive feat. The cinematographer, Renato Berta, is one of the most distinguished in the business; the very list of directors with whom he has worked—including Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Alain Resnais, Éric Rohmer, Manoel de Oliveira, André Téchiné, Alain Tanner, Robert Guédiguian, Philippe Garrel, and Louis Malle—suggests the scope and depth of his artistry. The strongest art in “Il Buco” is in the light that he creates; the eerie, lurid glow on the cave’s jagged surface leaves a haunting memory, a painterly impression that outleaps the grandiosity of the movie’s conceit. In excluding conversation, commentary, analysis, context, and personality, Frammartino is a cinematic Icarus: he strains high for sublimity and finds a deck of picture postcards.

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