Saturday, April 20, 2013

Michelangelo Frammartino's back -- at Tribeca and MoMA/PS1 -- with ALBERI

Is the equally gifted and unusual Michelangelo Frammartino -- shown at right and further below, of Le Quattro Volte and the just-opened film-cum-art-installation ALBERI -- more of a fine artist than a filmmaker? Why can't these be one in the same? They can, of course (Signore Frammartino is perhaps the best example I could offer), but they usually are not. Most filmmakers are more focused on telling a story and entertaining their audiences, which is pretty much the whole point when tickets are purchased and profit is demanded. This artist's work, while very beautiful and reasonably accessible to intelligent viewers, is less concerned with narrative than with immersion.

Meeting Michelangelo Frammartino proves one of the singular treats of TrustMovies' cinematic life, not only because of the richness and beauty of Le Quattro Volte, and now this new "cinematic installation," Alberi, but because the man himself seems as beautiful inside and out as are his films. So fully alive and filled with wonder and pleasure does he sound and appear that he is at once propulsive and contagious -- in the best of ways -- as he speaks about his latest work.

The first thing Frammartino does as he sees me coming toward him (thanks to my rather large height) is to tell me that I should have played one of his man/tree characters (above, center) in Alberi, which translates into English as "trees." Frammartino himself is on the small side, but so full of energy is he that he seems about twice my size. Alberi is his 28-minute ode to nature, ceremony and tradition, in which his camera (and we) wake to a morning in the midst of a forest in the hills of Southern Italy (locations were Armento, Potenza and Basilicata), then slowly come to life, moving around, over and into a mountain village not unlike the one used for Le Quattro Volte, which was filmed in Calabria. (The village used here seems larger, or maybe more compact, than that in LQV.)

The wind blows, bells toll, and a group of men leave for that nearby forest, carrying with them some small hand tools. Once in the forest, they begin stripping trees of their ivy growth and small branches, and before we know it, suddenly -- well, this is for you to see and gasp at. The film ends with a kind of traditional ceremony that eventually brings us back to that initial image -- but now in a very different manner.

The beauty here is just about staggering, but Frammartino doesn't dwell on it via any usual gorgeous-and-clichéd cinematography, as much as he buries you, wraps you inside it. This forest is immersive, and the installation -- inside the Dome at PS1 in Long Island City, Queens -- allows you to sit or lie on the floor (with cushions provided) and get utterly lost in it. For me the dome's screen, coupled with what and how Frammartino films, while not as large as that of IMAX, proves much more immersive.

There is no dialog in the film, just image and sound. And beauty. That's more than enough. While some of the images may put you in mind of the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or The Wicker Man, this is uniquely Frammartino. Oh, yes -- one more thing: These films are not documentaries, they are narratives, although they use the documentary style and are based very closely on real life, tradition and ceremony, as they are found in these villages. But the artist has tweaked them all to serve his goal.  Alberi plays now through April 27, via the Tribeca Film Festival and MoMA's PS1.

After I have left the Dome (and watched the film one-and-one half times), I ask Frammartino some questions to learn more about him and his movies. The filmmaker is 45 years old, though he looks, I tell him, a decade younger. "Maybe my work keeps me young!" (His English is surprisingly good, though we have a translator on hand for the occasional missing word.)

While his work may keep the fellow youthful, it does take a good deal of time to produce.  Frammartino spent five years making the 88-minute Le Quattro Volte and a full year making this new (and not even a half-hour-long) film. "I don't work so quickly, it is true." By comparing the country of Italy to a shoe and then using his own foot as an example, the artist points out the areas of Italy, both of which lie in the south, where his films were shot.

Frammartino then tells me how very easy it was to cast the man who played his shepherd in LQV, but how very difficult it was to cast the famous "tree" that must be cut down to enable the ceremony in that same film. "Humans are easy," he smiles, "but nature is difficult." The artist loves nature and wants, via his work, to show us how it connects to us and we to it -- often in ways that we don't expect or even realize on a conscious level as we watch the films. He then explains a theory in LQV that practically defines reincarnation. "But you don't have to believe in that" He assures me. "I myself do not."

Still, there is something primal, maybe pantheistic, in the work of this man, and in his personality, too. You cannot watch his films or spend even a little time with him without being, in a sense, conver-ted. But Frammartino is not proselytizing; he's just being himself.

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