Venice 2021 review: Il buco (Michelangelo Frammartino)

“Il buco is a brilliant reminder that we are here for just a short while, and in that time given to us we should observe the world around us with awe and respect.”

In one of the early moments of Il buco, the first film in over a decade from the master of contemplative, observational cinema Michelangelo Frammartino, the people of a small town in the hills of Calabria are gathered around a television outside a local bar. They watch a news item in which a reporter and his crew climb the outside of a skyscraper in Milan in a window-cleaning lift. The awe about this large man-made structure is palpable in the reporter’s comments as they rise floor by floor. Frammartino’s rumination on the insignificance and transience of human existence through the exploration of a deep abyss in Italy’s deep South shows that time and space are important to us, but mean nothing to nature. People come and people go, but nature remains, unmoved, on a timescale far beyond human comprehension.

In 1961 a group of young speleologists set out on an expedition to explore the caves of Italy from North to South. Loosely based on this expedition, Il buco follows the group as they descend the Abyss of Bifurto, at that time the third deepest explored cave in the world (683 meters). Devoid of dialogue and shot in a documentary style, the film documents the methodical climb down into the darkness to the constant echoes of dripping water. In parallel, Il buco portrays the daily life of an old, leather-faced cattle herder in a valley in which time seems to have stood still. Does time even exist for nature?

Frammartino’s film could have been set in any era, to be honest, were it not for the occasional hint that this is the early sixties. The scenery looks like it could be set in our current time, small villages dotting a rugged, mountainous landscape. Yet there are signs. The townspeople watch an old black-and-white television set. The speleologists throw down burning magazine pages to gauge the depth of the cave. There’s something to be said about the meaning of fame when photos of Sophia Loren and JFK end up in the humid depths of the Earth. Fame is nice, but it will pass. Earth remains, it doesn’t care about such frivolities. Frammartino shoots humans as insignificant when compared to the impressive Calabrian landscape, or in the oppressive darkness of the deeper sections of the cave. There are times when 90 percent of the screen is black, only a small headlamp illuminating the remaining portion.

Yet this also says something about the perseverance of mankind. What is it that makes somebody want to go as deep or as high as possible, the only reward being able to say you did it? Likewise, the old cattle herder at one point is found by his friends, having had either a fall or a stroke. He clings to life for the longest of times. Why is it that the human body simply does not want to give up? Spoiler alert: he dies in the end, another example that shows we are just passersby to nature. The mountains and caves were there before us and they will be there after us, and we shouldn’t overestimate our importance in the grander scheme of things (in a way, this makes Il buco an interesting companion piece to fellow Competition title Competencia Oficial, another film that posits we shouldn’t place ourselves too much in the center of the universe).

Frammartino’s cinema is for the patient, the ones willing to observe. His films hold to the old adage that you will only see it when you understand it. His images need contemplation, and never more so than in Il buco. The shots of people descending deeper and deeper into a cave (which must have been a grueling shoot) get repetitive after a while, but this in itself is another comment on time: the length of a film, the length of a lifetime, it is all insignificant to the length of eternity and the history of the universe. Il buco is a brilliant reminder that we are here for just a short while, and in that time given to us we should observe the world around us with awe and respect.