LISTEN CAREFULLY inside the cavernous dark of the theater and you’ll hear the gossamer symphony accompanying the opening sequence of Michelangelo Frammartino’s newest feature, Il Buco: interstitial beads of water echoing softly as they fall into pools; the hushed stridulation of crickets; a crescendo of insects buzzing about as night yields to nautical dawn; and, eventually, a chorus of cowbells, followed by something like a distant cry. Only as the sun rises does it become apparent where the camera rests: nestled inside a hole in the ground, peering up at the sky, rocks, and weeds, and then at two stray cows looking listlessly into the pit.
Taking its inspiration from a 1961 expedition made by members of the Piedmont Speleological Group to the southeasternmost tip of Italy, Il Buco adapts the story of a team of young geoscientists who depart from the economically booming north to explore the Bifurto abyss, tucked inside the pastoral expanse around Mount Pollino in the wilds of Calabria. Just as the Pirelli Tower in Milan—then Europe’s tallest skyscraper—is being touted as a totem of postwar prosperity, this group endeavors to make a footprint at the other end of the country. Instead of going up, they go in, fathoming uncharted earth, inch by inch, mapping out what turns out to be the third deepest cave in Europe.
Never before had an Italian campaign of this sort traveled so far south, as viewers glean from a bit of on-screen text excerpted from a field bulletin. Il Buco suggests the alterity of its location, first by positioning viewers inside the resonant hollow, and then by admiring the seemingly endless countryside where everything moves at a slumbering pace, including a single ancient herdsman of the plateau who alone takes note of the outsiders’ arrival.
Even before the explorers reach base camp, the cattleman regards the group with unspoken suspicion. Later, he will internalize their intrusions in the landscape as though they were happening inside his own body. No meeting between the cowherd and the speleologists ever takes place, but the closer the exploratory team draws to the cavity’s terminus, the iller the old man becomes, succumbing to a coma-like sleep.
The company’s subterranean venture is emphatically analogue. The scientist-adventurers employ ropes, pulleys, oil headlamps, measuring tapes, rucksacks, and hand-drawn maps; they test depths with tossed pebbles and ignited pages of Time magazine. Nonetheless, the expedition reads like an allegory for the human drive to colonize any and all regions of the unknown, to universalize all knowledge.
Il Buco might be taken as a meditation on the right to opacity, to quote Éduoard Glissant’s well-known coinage. Communicating mostly in indecipherable utterances and nonlexical calls, the shepherd uses vocalizations whose simplicity is at odds with the constant measuring, mapping, recording, and classifying of the hole at the film’s heart. Watching Il Buco, I kept thinking about the persistence of the dozens of local and regional Italian dialects, operating against the grain of linguistic homogenization. For centuries, poets in Italy have famously employed such dialects—some to hide obscene and satirical content (like Carlo Porta and Giuseppe Gioachino Belli in the nineteenth century), others to find a rootedness in a locality (Pasolini). And of course, Italian as we know it today originated with Dante, pointedly writing in the Tuscan vernacular rather than Latin.
Throughout Il Buco, most human speech—apart from that in a television feature on the Pirelli palace and the old man’s cattle calls—is only ever heard at a distance, both standard Italian and Calabrian dialects disappearing into the acoustic fabric of the film. Cinematographer Renato Berta’s camera, either suffocatingly close or slightly afield from its subjects, hastens this sensorial defamiliarization. So does the rarity of subtitles. That these only appear under two brief archival segments—the aforementioned scientific report and the Pirelli doc, viewed, in a beguiling crepuscular scene, by a mesmerized group of townspeople motionlessly watching a television plopped outside on the dirt—is to insist upon a certain incommunicability. Despite our best efforts to dominate the heavens and the underworld, some places evade epistemic capture. Murmurous soundscapes, both infinitesimal and grandiose, perplex and disorient, causing human agents and their endeavors to appear more like incidental elements in the greater chasm of time.
Il Buco opens at Film Forum in New York on May 13.