There's more to Pythagoras than his theorem concerning right triangles. The Greek mathematician (circa 570-495 BC) appears to have lived for a time in Southern Italy, where he headed a religious cult espousing the transmigration of the soul, from man to animal to vegetable to mineral. Eventually, the skeptical locals revolted and burned his temples to the ground, and poor Pythagoras was sent scurrying into exile. Now, 2500 years later, his spiritual tenets have been resuscitated in Le quattro volte, an unusual, sometimes enchanted essay film — part dramatized, part documentary — shot in an obscure mountain village in Calabria, Pythagoras's old haunt.
Filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino came down from Milan with a camera and crew, and they concocted the most minimalist of stories to dramatize Pythagorean soul travel: the film title translates as "the four times." What's involved are a dying old man, a baby goat, a giant fir tree, and the fir turned to charcoal. There's practically no dialogue. The camera observes, mostly in long takes, and often, when in town, looking down from several strategic rooftops. At its most arresting, the film is about changing light and the sounds of nature. Although the village includes a mammoth Catholic church, what's felt in the air is more primal, pagan. At one point, there's a ragged street pageant sporting a Jesus on his cross. But far more of the townsfolk are absorbed in a pre-Christian ritual of cutting down the huge fir and hacking it into pieces in the village square.
There's just one professional actor in the film, brought to Calabria for the shoot: a little dog! This canine is a great performer, becoming a herd dog in some scenes (so skilled that he fools the local goats), in other scenes becoming a guard dog whose bark frightens passers-by. Almost as charismatic is a non-thespian baby goat, whom we watch from the moment he's born, plopping to the ground, to the tragic sequence when he's lost from the herd. As for the goats, we see them up close, much the way we hung with the sheep in Sweetgrass.
What keeps Le quattro volte from greatness is the final 20 minutes, the saga of the fir tree. Druids will watch with great excitement. The rest of us will find that the thrill has ebbed, with man, dog, and baby goat gone from the movie.