Michelangelo Frammartino by Pamela Cohn

Michelangelo Frammartino on cinema as architecture, as installation, and as personal encounter.


Still from Alberi, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

An architect by training, Italian filmmaker and artist Michelangelo Frammartino is best known for his multiple award-winning film from 2010, Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times). Inspired by Pythagoras’ belief in four-fold transmigration by which a soul moves from human to animal to vegetable to mineral, the genre-defying and gorgeously cinematic film traces the cycle of life through daily rituals in a small town in the mountain region of Calabria in the south of Italy. With no narration, no dialogue, just exquisite sound design by Daniel Iribarren, the film documents the lives of the four main protagonists—an old man, a baby goat, a tall and stately tree, and a charcoal kiln.

In his new piece Alberi (Trees), Frammartino revisits the Basilicata region to film a pagan ritual the townspeople have been performing for as long as anyone can remember. The ritual centers on Romito, a treelike man who, according to myth, rejected the idea of migration, instead opting to plant his roots deeply in his native land. The men in the town cover themselves completely in roots, branches and leaves, transforming into Romitos, becoming wandering trees in a celebratory promenade that begins in the depths of the forest, moves to the village’s main square where they shake and dance and let the women pick leaves from their moving bodies. They then return to the forest as night falls.

The piece premiered at MoMA’s PS1 in April of this year and in mid-November Alberi was installed at Copenhagen’s Museum Den Frie where it was featured as part of the program at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (November 7 through 17). Frammartino was invited to pitch this project at the CPH Forum in 2011.

Reclining on big celery-green cushions set about the floor of a black-box open space, viewers watch the film, which plays in an uninterrupted loop, on a huge 15 × 6.2 meter screen surrounded by five speakers. At the opening, I met with Frammartino and had a chance to speak to him about his latest work—which he calls a “cine-installation.”

Pamela Cohn You work in pure visual language, which is unusual these days. Lately, it seems as if artists and filmmakers want to add more and more layers so that we encounter a kind of audio-visual onslaught in a lot of work.

Michelangelo Frammartino I am working in the space between man and nature. This ritual is a dialogue or an exploration of the relationship between man and nature. We are made of the same material. I want to explore this strong connection. As you say, we are in a big technological period but this, perhaps, is why we’re feeling a need to be more connected. But perhaps we also consider ourselves, humans, as too important, and this is a way of showing how we can reconnect with the natural world around us, or the non-human world more precisely. In most cinema, only humans can be the main character or characters. But I want to find my protagonist in a tree or a mountain and want to be able to express this in a strong way.

PC This ritual that you film in Alberi is interesting because while it’s a group endeavor and the whole village participates, you sense that for each person, it’s also a private experience that has specific meaning for them. In these elemental aspects that are part of the world they live in, this particular region of Calabria where you film seems to be the ideal spot in which to explore your ideas.

MF It’s important to know about these things, in Europe and in the wider world. I belong to this area of the south. I was not born there, but my mother and father were from there, and it offers something universal that I want to express. Each year, I work in this area. I am currently making another piece there and so, in January, I will be closing a sort of trilogy. It just works very well for me, in the language I’m using. But I don’t think we can find something like this only in that place, meaning this kind of connection where it starts with the human, then an animal, then a tree, and then a mineral. I believe we can commune with these other elements.

PC You have a love for this particular place because we see this in your work, how the people that inhabit that place feel at home there. It’s so peaceful and not something that needs to be articulated at all.

MF When one asks why they do this, this ritual, their answer is, “We always did.”

PC A very satisfactory answer.

MF Yes. When you see this installation or this movie, the meaning is so deep. You have to find it on your own, find your own meaning. When you are there, it’s very strong, very strong.

PC In this film, you set out to record this ritual and nothing else. So we have a 33-minute film you’ve chosen to exhibit as an installation piece that plays in a loop rather than something one would experience in a cinema. Why?

MF For me, it’s never-ending. There is the part where the camera is surrounded by trees looming over it from above. And eventually the camera is completely covered by the tree-men and so it’s completely dark; it’s night. And then the dawn comes slowly. So when you are inside the installation, you can decide what is the beginning and what is the end, no? Because there is no beginning and there is no end. We made it only one time, at the moment it happened over the course of that day. So, whatever moment is chosen to go in and out defines the meaning, perhaps. Some people watch it two or three times in a row, some go out and come back in, some people only watch 10 minutes and then go out. (laughter) So it’s very different from a traditional cinema experience.

I’m 45 now and when I first entered the cinema, I was a little boy. It was ’72 or ’73 and my father took me for the first time. And I remember we entered the movie in the middle of the story. At that time, you were free to do that, to enter or exit the cinema any time you wanted to. Now this is not the case and you must enter when the movie starts and you leave when it’s finished, watching it from beginning to end one time only, or you go out and pay again.

Then, you could stay all day long. The entrance was always free. They were showing a cartoon and we watched the second part and it was a bit strange to figure out but it was like life—it was moving. When it finished, my father said, “Now, we stay to see the beginning.” So this was a whole new experience to see what came before the part we saw. It wasn’t better, necessarily, but it was different.

Watching Alberi this way, I think maybe this is not cinema. It’s something different. It’s not really an installation because it uses too much of film language to be called strictly an installation. I have a lot of respect for video art; I am not a video artist. It is an homage to cinema. So I don’t know exactly what it is. It’s on the line between character and landscape and cinema and video. I don’t know.

PC As a maker, are you finding that there are more and more entities, like this festival, that are trying to support work that lies in more of that free, indefinable zone? Cinema can take so much from other art forms and now there are artists coming from different disciplines to explore work in film or video and making very compelling work.

MF As I said, personally, I respect video art and the artists that sort of invented video art and fought for the identity of video from other art forms. I am an architect and so I look at materials like wood and cement differently. But at the same time, there are things that you cannot identify. I am working in film and have made this installation but I don’t know if I’m comfortable calling it that. I don’t know what it is. Sometimes you cannot find the right name to call something. I am comfortable, maybe, with calling it a cine-installation. We can say this.

I agree with you. I think that cinema can learn a lot from other art forms. You don’t have to forget that you are in a cinema but using the elements of it can transform something. For instance, I work a lot on the sound in my work, mixing it and allowing it to become very present, like another character. It’s to give people the feeling that there is something behind the image they are seeing. For me, this is the meaning of the work, there in the sound. You see a road. But there’s something behind it. It’s a way of showing but also hiding something at the same time. It’s a way of coloring what you see. When we look at things in an everyday way, we don’t see anymore. But oddly, when you cover it, then you see it. You see a statue or a building everyday you pass by it. And then you stop seeing it. But then, it gets covered with a cloth or a box or something, and then you see it again. It’s very strange. When it’s hidden, it’s revealed. So in my images, I am trying to show, but also hide.

I like to work so that the sound is coming from the speaker directly behind the image to literally say that there is something behind this image. I don’t have any dialogue. So, in a sense, the sounds that would be more peripheral, I want to come from the speaker where normally the dialogue comes—the sound of a goat, the sound the wind makes blowing through the leaves of a tree so that the tree seems to be speaking. It’s not in the background. It comes from the place where the dialogue should come. When you are in the cinema, you experience it like this.

PC Your training as an architect must inform this somehow because it’s “built” in a way as a structure. Instead of wood and cement, you use image and sound.

MF I loved my cinema professors at university, but it’s true that I grew up really in the study of architecture. And when I’m shooting, I am also thinking of the people sitting in that dark room experiencing what I’m making, how they see, how they will hear it. My editor is a sound editor, a great sound editor. When you are making a movie, there are rules. (laughter) When you close the Avid and lock visuals, then only you can open Pro Tools and work on the soundtrack. This means that the connection one makes with the material is mostly through the eyes. The image takes precedence. The sound can enhance but not necessarily change the image or the emotional connection the viewer has to the material. It’s tricky because it means the eye is the boss. But my editor can work in this reverse way where the sound is the dominant emotional line.

PC I’ve heard many people declare that we do experience deeper emotional reactions through our ears and not our eyes. We do suppose that the image carries more weight than what we hear, but the reverse is true. When there is really bad sound on something, I notice my attention span wanes sometimes quite quickly, no matter how compelling the imagery. Even silence is a sound. And in the long takes that you film, I would think that what we hear and the way it’s edited, is essential somehow to the success or failure to engage.

MF This long gaze and very present sound allows an affection and a connection to develop for the characters.

PC It’s also an opportunity to stop thinking, to turn off the mind as one would train oneself to do in a meditation. It also makes for a very personal encounter with the film.

MF Yes, it’s connected directly to you and your perception. Whether you are suffering, or whatever state you are in, you are encountering it in this personal way and it makes it your own, your connection to this image.

PC Did it surprise you, the love with which people embraced Le Quattro Volte?

MF Cineuropa, the sales agent, ended up selling it to over 50 countries. This was a surprise, yes! This means I am working in this way for a reason and an individual can connect in the way I hope.

What’s really great is that the film is shown to children and they like it very much. They connect. When a child doesn’t like something, they disengage immediately. They are honest about this. It’s very obvious when they are not interested. I have been in childrens’ theatre and seen the pain an actor can experience when he enters the stage and somehow, the children are not interested. And they turn away from it and start to play amongst themselves. (laughter) They are not polite. But when someone enters and they are captivated, they sit with their mouths open, staring and listening with everything they have. And I have seen them react in this way with my films.

Pamela Cohn is a filmmaker, curator and freelance arts journalist currently based in Germany and Kosovo.

Miguel Gomes by Giovanni Marchini Camia
​Miguel Gomes