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Into the Abyss: Michelangelo Frammartino on “Il buco”

The Italian director discusses his Venice prizewinner, a reenactment of a real-life descent down one of the world’s deepest caves.
Leonardo Goi
Il buco
Michelangelo Frammartino’s new feature, Il buco, is his first that can be rightfully labelled a period piece. Set in the early sixties, it reenacts a legendary caving expedition that saw a handful of young speleologists travel from Turin to Calabria and descend down the Bifurto Abyss—a 700 meters deep cave then thought to be the third largest on Earth. But the Italian director’s filmography (a protean body of work spanning shorts and three features) has always hailed from its own anachronistic planet, one where time seems to work differently—if it does work at all. His first two features (Il Dono, 2003, and Le Quattro Volte, 2010) were ostensibly set in the present, but the rural Calabria they immortalized looked like a universe telegraphed from the past. Ancestral rituals, slow-paced routines, and pastoral landscapes where humans are almost camouflaged against plants and animals; to be walking into Frammartino’s films is to experience a kind of temporal dissonance, to wrestle with a jumbled chronology and a lingering doubt: what year is this? 
In Il Buco, that would be 1961, halfway through the economic “boom” that would transform Italy from a war-torn wasteland into one of the world’s most industrialized countries. Glimpses and echoes of that miracle ricochet everywhere in the film, and Frammartino (who co-wrote the script with Giovanna Giuliani) turns to them to underscore the insurmountable distance between the richer North and the poorer South, and the tension between the youngsters’ accomplishment and the path the world had undertaken. As the film opens, the speleologists reach a remote hamlet in Calabria only to find all its inhabitants crammed around an old TV: they’re watching a special on the Pirellone, a freshly-built skyscraper towering above Milan as a totem of the country’s economic advance. While the wealthiest nations were priapically flaunting their progress in the shapes of towers or spaceships, the youths who braved the Bifurto Abyss travelled in the opposite direction. Much like Frammartino’s own cinema, theirs was an untimely, anachronistic feat, and from this gravitational clash between Pirellone and Bifurto, between a skyward ascent and a downward conquest, Il buco draws some of its most thought-provoking material. 
Shot in long static takes by the veteran Swiss cinematographer Renato Berta (famed for his work with, among many others, Louis Malle, Alain Tanner, and Jean-Marie Straub), Il buco is a largely wordless chronicle of the underground odyssey. We follow the speleologists down the abyss, a maze of pits and shafts and pools, each frame—shot on an ultra-wide lens and in deep focus—bristling with the beauty of things that have never been seen before. There’s an immersive thrill about feeling the camera propped on a precipice as the explorers descend down the abyss, a Herzogian quality that makes those underground shots just as spell-binding as the efforts that went into capturing them. Speaking to Artforum, Frammartino has stated that much of his practice emerged as a reaction against “an enforced passivity of viewership” fueled by mainstream cinema and television. With Il buco, he seems far less interested in celebrating that 1961 adventure—otherworldly as it was—than in problematizing its meaning. For the voyage down the Bifurto remains a kind of colonization, an offshoot of the economic miracle those youths seemed to work against. Running parallel to their journey there’s another storyline following an old shepherd patrolling the valley around the sinkhole. As many other humans dotting Frammartino’s films, he shares a near-symbiotic relationship with his surroundings, and it’s telling that, no sooner have the speleologists begun their descent, his health should suddenly deteriorate. That the film succeeds in turning the cavern into a kind holy ground only amplifies the uneasiness you experience as the young men and women desecrate it. All their mapping and studying, noble in intent as they may have been, eventually yanked the cave out of the realm of myths; once they reached the bottom, the Bifurto was no longer an Abyss—only a hole in the ground. 
Frammartino reflected on this as we met at last year’s Venice Film Festival, a few days before Il Buco nabbed a Special Jury Prize. 

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to start with your academic background. You studied architecture for your undergrad, and I was wondering how much you reckon that’s influenced your filmmaking—specifically, the way you understand and relate with the spaces, indoors and outdoors, in your films.
MICHELANGELO FRAMMARTINO: Everything for me began at the faculty of architecture. Attached as I am to the film school I later attended in Milan, that’s not where my initiation started: it was in the 1990s, as an architect undergrad. Still, I guess what influenced my relationship with space the most was my being from Calabria. Let me explain. I was born in Milan to Calabrese parents; as a child, anytime we’d return to the South, the thing that shocked me the most about that place—though at the time I certainly wasn’t as aware of it as I am now—was the fact that there didn’t seem to be a real “border” between indoors and outdoors. The epiphany never ceased to stun me. Back in Milan we’d always make sure to lock the door to the house very tight. Plus there were always many different doors between your house and the street: the door to the building, the door to the lift, the door to flat… Growing up, I had this recurring nightmare: I used to dream I’d leave my house and forget to lock the door. I never had that nightmare in Calabria; you don’t have to worry about shutting doors there. First and foremost, your cat needs to come in and out as they please. Also people will usually sit outside to work and hang out. And the neighbors will often just walk right into your place. There’s no clear-cut boundary between the outside and the inside. It took me a while to understand that my interest in this porous divide comes from there. Studying architecture taught me about the importance of time—it imparted to me a certain ethics, if you like. You know that someone will be using what you built, eventually, so you have to think of those you’re working for, those who will come after you and will engage with your work; you must leave room for others to finish what you started. And this of course applies to filmmaking too. You must leave enough room in the films you make for people to fit in, so they can bring their own readings, their own interpretations. All of this to say that, if Calabria taught me how to relate with space, studying architecture taught me how to deal with time. 
NOTEBOOK: I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about working with Renato Berta, your director of photography. This is the first time you two collaborate—how did that come about? 
FRAMMARTINO: I met Berta in Locarno, at the film school there. I’d reached out to him because, seeing as Il buco was—much to my surprise—turning into a period piece, and since I was a little bit concerned as to what that might entail, I wanted to rely on a veteran of his caliber. But the collaboration had originally kicked off as a kind of consultancy. We asked him to recommend someone who’d worked under him, someone he’d know and could help us. He said this would be the first time he’d be shooting in complete darkness, in absolute, pitch black, and ended up deciding he’d do it himself. That’s how we teamed up—almost by mistake. And the best thing about it is that he approached the task as if it were a kind of first time for him too. Someone who’d already shot over a hundred films—and what films!—who shows up on set with the enthusiasm and humility of a man who’s starting a whole new thing from scratch. It was so motivating.
NOTEBOOK: I just can’t imagine how difficult the actual shooting must have been, especially for someone as meticulous as you. I remember reading that it took you almost two weeks to shoot that dog scene in Le quattro volte. How long did the shooting last here? 
FRAMMARTINO: The cave posed all kinds of logistical challenges, and… Look, I don’t mean to say this to add more value to the film, but filming down there was just so, so tiring. I think that fatigue can be a double-edged sword: you either know how to use it to your advantage, or it crushes you. And I’m still not quite sure as to how that played out in the context of this film. Bear in mind that each day we had to factor in four hours to climb out of the cave.
NOTEBOOK: Four hours?! 
FRAMMARTINO: That’s right. Now imagine going through a full day of shooting, and knowing that you still have this gigantic effort ahead of you. Not to mention that the film itself was fairly complex and laborious; I would often spend my weekends catching up with work and visiting the shepherd you see in the film, who lived in another village. We just never rested. We shot for twelve weeks. Six above, six down below. And we came out of it knackered. I never felt anything quite like it, not in any of my previous films.
Il buco
NOTEBOOK: I guess that accounts for the “Herzogian” quality the film emanates. As a viewer, I was always so painfully aware—and stunned by—the physical efforts that went into the shooting. 
FRAMMARTINO: But that Herzogian quality you mention is always a positive attribute of his films. It is a function of Herzog’s ability to turn fatigue into a key component of his cinema. I was just talking about this Italian writer, Gianni Celati—not sure if you’re familiar. He only writes when he’s tired; he goes for these long, exhausting walks and starts writing as soon as he gets back… [Pauses] I’m just not entirely convinced that we made the most of all the fatigue we wrestled with during the shooting. 
NOTEBOOK: What makes you say that? 
FRAMMARTINO: Here’s an example: health and safety concerns meant we couldn’t get our actors to follow the crew down below, to have them with us for every minute we spent in the cave. Which meant that they were often a lot more “fresh” than we were. Had they been as tired as the rest of us, I suspect they would have brought something different to the frame. But that wasn’t an option; we just had to accept it. Still, I wonder if my own fatigue, the lack of lucidity this unbearable tiredness caused in me, brought something to the film all the same. I don’t know what that “something” may be; I’m still asking myself. All I know is that it was physically overwhelming. I’d never found myself in the middle of a shooting thinking, “just two weeks left and then it’ll be all over!” I’ve always had to deal with the opposite worry: how on earth can I squeeze in a couple of extra days to shoot? Here, the dilemma was: how can I end this sooner? 
NOTEBOOK: I found your juxtaposing the expedition to the building of the Pirellone very thought-provoking. It makes for a kind of gravitational tension between the Bifurto’s exploration and the feats of the outside world, all of them jutting skyward. Could you tell me more about what drew you to this contrast?
FRAMMARTINO: I’d taken an interest in speleology and convinced myself we could shoot a film inside the cave. And then I met Giulio Gecchele, a key figure of the 1961 expedition. Don’t forget the significance of that year for us Italians: it’s the 100-year anniversary of Italy’s unification. We’re in the middle of the so-called economic boom. The Pirellone is being built. And isn’t it funny that so many feats from those years are imbued with the same kind of positive vertical symbology? Take the country’s conquest of the K2 summit. Yes, that was 1954, not 1961, but it’s still fairly emblematic: then Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi launched what effectively amounted to a government-backed expedition; five hundred sherpas were recruited to help the Italians reach the peak. Five hundred! That tells you just how badly they wanted Italy to be on top of the world. So when Giulio told me about their own adventure, about these youths who took a train in 1961 to climb below the surface of the Earth, the story felt like an untimely counter-narrative, something that ran against the spirit of the times. These young people wind up finding what was then thought to be the deepest cave in the world. They descend into the abyss while everyone else was reaching for the sky—and they decide not to tell anyone? Isn’t it crazy? Think of all the interviews I’m doing for this film. And these guys chose to keep quiet. Yes, they did publish a report on their group’s bulletin—but that meant what, thirty, a hundred copies maybe? Just a handful of pictures—of what the cave looked like from the outside, because they couldn’t take any underground. I think there’s an extraordinary lesson there. 
NOTEBOOK: Which you choose to complicate. There’s obviously something majestic, perhaps even romantic, about these young people and their feat. But at the same time your film doesn’t shy away from the more sinister consequences of the undertaking. In a way, their exploration amounted to a kind of colonization, and that explains the conflict upon which Il buco pivots.
FRAMMARTINO: Sure, but that conflict is inescapable. You can only accept it. If you’re an independent filmmaker you know your camera will always, to some degree, carry violence. It’s a military instrument; you cannot forget that, ever. The youngsters who chose to sneak their way underground in 1961 were extraordinary, bold, daring; they went against the prevailing forces of their era, and worked “for free” for the rest of us, in a way. But they were also unmistakably involved in a kind of colonization, as you say: they gave a shape to an erstwhile unshaped world. The minute they started mapping the contours of that cave they stripped it of all its myths.
NOTEBOOK: They gave it a limit.
FRAMMARTINO: A limit and a shape. They christened it. Now you know it’s a cave with twenty-nine pits. Nothing is left to the imagination. The saddest, most violent thing is when a cave turns into a tourist destination. That’s when you know it’s all over. I guess what I’m saying is that even as you chronicle an expedition as formidable as this, you’re always going to face a darker reverse-shot.
NOTEBOOK: Which explains the shepherd’s malaise as the film moves along. He seems to share a kind of symbiotic relationship with the valley; once the cave is desecrated, his health worsens. 
FRAMMARTINO: That’s something we discussed a lot. There’s the doctor’s visit: a man who shows up with a headlamp to take a look at the ailing shepherd, as if he were a speleologist himself; lo and behold, just as he walks in a beam of light razors into the cave, mirroring the light the doctor flashes on his patient. Where am I, the viewer, in that moment? Am I inside the mountain or something else entirely? This confusion between landscape and character, between an internal cavity and a hole in the landscape—that’s something we talked plenty about. And we decided to leave as much room as possible for people to appreciate the many different ways in which this internal voyage could be read, and what it may mean.

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