The Fast and the Numinous
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. This week, a thrilling examination of the life of an iconic sportsman, and some goats.
Driven to Perfection
There's a bit of a kerfuffle in the more reactionary parts of the UK press (which, come to think of it, is just about all of it) about an imminent TV documentary in which we see somebody die, on screen. I suppose we can argue about the pros and cons of such issues, but the thing that really strikes me as odd is that no-one seems to have made the slightest yelp of complaint about Asif Kapadia's Senna, a movie documentary in which two people die (not quite on screen but close enough). It's not really the same thing in all sorts of ways, I suppose, but still...
Senna is, of course, a film about the last decade in the life of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian Formula One driver, held by many to be the greatest in the history of the sport. The film opens in 1984, with an inspired drive by Senna in a rain-lashed Monaco Grand Prix bringing him to prominence early in his debut season. From here on it focuses on his rise to the top of his sport, particularly his relationship with the French driver Alain Prost.
The film depicts Senna as a warm, passionate, but also supremely talented driver, utterly dedicated to his sport, and takes pains to contrast him with Prost: a calculating technician, but also brilliant in his way. Senna and Prost are initially team-mates driving for the McLaren team, but what begins as a friendly rivalry rapidly develops into a bitter and acrimonious feud.
As the film moves into the early 1990s, we see Senna increasingly frustrated by the internal politics of the sport – and possibly partiality on the part of the sport's president, another Frenchman – and the growing dominance of technological innovation over genuine driving skill. A move to the Williams team in 1994 results in Senna driving a car he is deeply uncomfortable with, beset by technical difficulties, leading to a fateful weekend in Imola where the film climaxes.
Now, I'm not a tremendous F1 fan, although I followed the sport for a bit in the mid-to-late 1990s. But I don't think you need to be familiar with the sport to appreciate Kapadia's film, either as a story or as a technical achievement. In fact, I would suggest that the crafting of the film as a story eclipses some of what made Ayrton Senna such a special driver – some of his most brilliant drives are barely mentioned in the movie, with the rivalry with Prost occupying most of the screen time. It's not quite a hagiography of Senna, although the film is barely ever critical of him, and while Prost is not entirely demonised he is presented as Senna's opponent.
One of the most noticeable and impressive things about the film is that it is composed entirely of archive footage. New interviews make up the soundtrack, but every image on screen was filmed at the time. As a result the film is an immersive experience, although a necessarily limited one: the endless scenes of race footage and people in garages talking intently don't make for a great deal of tonal variety, but footage from the Senna family archives make up for a great deal. The most startling and arresting sequences in the film are over-the-shoulder shots filmed on board Senna's car during a race, where you really do get a driver's eye view and an inkling of the astounding skills these men possessed. They are not as other people, folks; their brains are not wired up the way ours are.
In fact, if I had to make a real criticism of Senna it's that – by its very nature – it doesn't really approach the central enigma of a man like Senna: why is a man like this, of such remarkable talent, obsessed with risking his life in such an insanely dangerous sport? The film makes it clear Senna himself didn't know – or if he did, couldn't express it – and perhaps this is the reason why. How much of the attraction of Formula One is the danger inherent in the sport, for both the competitors and spectators? I don't know.
Senna has been doing a roaring trade at the local arthouse cinema, and as a thoroughly engrossing and moving film it deserves to do well. I don't think it's quite a great film; it's a little too limited by its format for that, and it never quite communicates what it was that made Ayrton Senna such an exceptional individual. However, I went to see this film with a good friend who's both a big Formula One fan and from the same town as Senna himself. In his words, for an F1 fan this film was 'an ice-cream chocolate cake... amazing' (he dropped an F-bomb somewhere in there too, but I have standards to keep up). And I thought it was pretty good too.
The path to making epically facetious comments about Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte is a treacherously inviting one, but you know what? I'm not going to. Oh, well, maybe just one, but I'll secrete it in the body of the review and see if anyone notices. This movie has acquired a bit of a buzz around in the UK, which is frankly bizarre, given its subject matter and tone. Even stranger, upon popping down the arthouse to check it out I was utterly astounded to find another showing that was practically sold out: there had been talk of a works do to see it, but it was just as well this never happened as there was no way we could have got more than a couple of seats together. Considering the kind of film Le Quattro Volte is, this was a practically cortex-melting discovery.
Based on one of Stan Lee's less celebrated comic books, Le Quattro Volte is the story... well, it's not really a story in the conventional sense. There is no dialogue and only one main character. Even the full extent of his involvement is debatable, on the deepest and most metaphysical level.
Most reviewers writing about this film have concentrated on the earlier sections when it comes to attempting some kind of coherent synopsis. Fair enough: they concern an elderly and clearly infirm goat herder (Giuseppe Fuda) who spends his days endlessly taking his caprine charges up to the meadows where they graze and back. Apparently in an attempt to fortify himself he is taking nightly infusions of a horrible-looking elixir largely composed of grit off the floor of the local church. Ugh.
Look, I normally try and avoid spoilers, but this isn't a conventional movie so I can't really do a conventional review. Spoilers looming. You were warned. Quite unexpectedly, given he's the central character, but not surprisingly given his poor health, the old man dies, off screen, and is buried. The camera lingers for a long moment on a shot positioned inside his sealed tomb: pitch blackness and total silence dominate the screen.
Then, abruptly, we're seeing the back end of a goat in the act of giving birth and the new-born animal suddenly becomes the new focus of the film. There is no implication on screen that the animal has any connection with the old man but in terms of the grammar of the picture the death of one and the birth of the other cannot help but seem significant.
And so the film progresses and the significance of the title becomes clear: Le Quattro Volte, the four times we must know ourselves, according to Pythagoras (I didn't actually know this, I nicked it from another review by someone more erudite). Human, animal, vegetable and mineral each become the focus of a section of the film, the transitions between them subtly linked and never completely arbitrary.
I don't think I've ever seen a film quite like this one before. It's not as rampantly and barkingly strange as that French movie about the murderous psychokinetic tyre I saw a month or two back, but it's quietly and firmly disconnected from practically every principle of conventional cinematic storytelling.
(It certainly seems to have set film writers struggling for things to say about it: 'Redefines the act of perception,' said some guy in America, managing to be memorable yet usefully vague. The pamphlet from the arthouse is even more all over the place, opening with the frankly baffling and unhelpful 'Buster Keaton with goats!' and wrapping up with a reference to the transmigration of souls, which is bang on but not exactly enticing.)
The narrative, such as it is, is delivered entirely through a kind of implication, and as a result it occurs largely in the viewer's head – on the screen there are simply a series of carefully composed and rather beautiful shots of rustic Italian life. Le Quattro Volte takes a laid-back approach to things, and Frammartino appears to be very relaxed in his direction. One static and naturalistic shot succeeds another, animals and people wandering about the screen apparently at random, the only sounds being the wind, the coughing of the shepherd and the clangour of goat bells. However, it's quite clear that this is a film that's been made with the greatest precision and rigour.
After about half an hour, Frammartino unveils the scene from this movie that has attracted the greatest attention. Abruptly, the camera slowly swings around almost 180 degrees, showing the other end of the same country lane it started by showing, then swings back, and then swings again. This takes what feels like about five minutes, but in context it carries as much impact as anything Michael Bay has ever done. Even more remarkable, something happens towards the end of this long, long shot that surely must have been planned in advance, but appears to be utterly spontaneous and natural. It's an astounding coup.
Once you get used to the slower pace demanded by a film where the main character for some of the time is a tree, Le Quattro Volte is an absorbing and rather rewarding movie, if extremely difficult to describe. Talking about what's on screen just makes it sound banal; talking about one's own intellectual and emotional response to it is to potentially intrude upon another's experience of the film. Please disregard everything you've just read and scrub this review from your memory, should you be planning to see it. But do see it if you fancy something thoughtful and very, very different.