The cave opening frames the blue sky like a human smile, as we angle upwards to spot a couple of cows peering down over the edge. It might remind some viewers of that old Oscar Wilde zinger about some of us being in the gutter but looking up at the stars, and it's certainly an opening image that's both earthbound and cosmic.
Yep, this is a film about a massive hole in the ground, in Calabria, in 1961 – and if there's anyone who could even think of doing that it’s surely director Michelangelo Frammartino, the man who turned mounds of charcoal, an old shepherd, and cute baby goats into the stuff of arthouse entrancement with 2010’s Le Quattro Volte.
Carefully composed and paced, this certainly looks like the work of the same filmmaker. The wind whistles and cowbells clang in a remote, verdant valley as another grizzled old geezer watches over his livestock. A timeless scene, but at night the local bar has the village's only TV set beaming in black and white images of Italy's economic miracle, which has built the country's tallest building in Milan and left the distant south far behind.
We are, in effect, watching a historical reconstruction, underlined when an official party of Piedmont speleologists bring their gear to the very same valley to explore an uncharted cave system. As their lorry negotiates its way off-road, it's like invaders have arrived from another planet.
Don’t come looking for some simplistic ‘tech = bad’ vs ‘green = good’ smackdown
We expect the film to dramatise this collision of cultures, yet Frammartino proves much more interested in setting up questions and leaving the audience to mull them over. Hence the northern technocrats and the southern country folk never really interact, not even when the elderly cowherd's health takes a turn for the worse. Is Frammartino suggesting there might be more value in saving the old boy’s life than mapping out some massive hole in the ground? Not sure.
As the camera follows the team beneath the surface, we observe their mission with respect, and pore over their hand-drawn maps as a artisanal example of man's need to understand his surroundings. Don’t come looking for some simplistic ‘tech = bad’ vs ‘green = good’ smackdown, but while the viewing experience is transportive and absorbing, it still feels like there’s something missing. Like some galvanising idea to electrify the whole thing, or a moment of euphoria to match Le Quattro Volte's memorable cycle-of-life conclusion.
Il Buco is certainly thoughtful and worthwhile, but perhaps just short of the revelation we were hoping for.
In New York theaters May 13.