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Review: Il buco (2021)

Il buco (2021)

Directed by: Michelangelo Frammartino | 93 minutes | drama | Actors: Claudia Candusso, Paolo Cossi, Mila Costi, Carlos José Crespo, Jacopo Elia, Federico Gregoretti, Antonio Lanza, Nicola Lanza, Leonardo Larocca, Giovanbattista Sauro, Angelo Spadaro, Enrico Troisi, Denise Trombin, Luca Vinai, Leonardo Zaccaro

In 1961, a group of intrepid scientists embark on an expedition to the rural southern Italian region of Calabria. Hidden in the Pollino Mountains lies an uncharted cave. For the first time, the speleologists explore the bottom of the no less than 700 meters deep Abisso del Bifurto, a snake-like abyss that leads to unknown subterranean places. Watched by an old cowherd, marked by an austere existence in all kinds of weather, the speleologists slowly sink into the darkness. Where the shepherd knows the area like the back of his hand, the cave explorers are literally groping in the dark. By throwing pebbles and burning paper down, they try to see and hear how deep the abyss is.

In ‘Il buco’, director Michelangelo Frammartino (known for ‘Le quattro volte’, among others) recreates the above-described expedition to the interior of the earth. Not an easy job. Logistically, filming ‘Il buco’ was quite an undertaking. For example, Frammartino and his companions had to make the trip to the depths of the cave (four hours down and four hours back up again) no less than thirty (!) times to get all the necessary images together. If you also consider that the director is afraid of heights, you realize that ‘Il buco’ really is a ‘labor of love’.

Despite the efforts the crew put into making the film, ‘Il buco’ is subtle and minimalistic. There is hardly any speech in this contemplative work. Instead, it is the sounds of above-ground nature and the ghostly echoes of steps and drops of water in the intense black (only sometimes lit up by the lights on the cavers’ helmets or an occasional torch) of the cave that set the aural tone of ‘ Il buco’ determine.

While a traditional feature film would undoubtedly have designated one of the speleologists as the main protagonist of this story, ‘Il buco’, shot more in a documentary style, gives the above and underground landscape the role of protagonist. The researchers are mainly a homogeneous group of enthusiasts and daredevils. We do not get to know them individually and only see how they collectively spend the night on arrival in a room full of statues of saints (after all, in southern Italy you are in the epicenter of Catholic Europe) and then set up camp in the field and descend into the darkness of the cave. A funny moment is the scene in which the cows cast a curious glance downwards, apparently wondering what possesses those strange two-legged creatures.

‘Il buco’ also subtly zooms in on various contradictions. Thus, the old shepherd is the antithesis of the cave explorers. While the speleologists are driven by a thirst for adventure and the exploration of undiscovered worlds, the shepherd has lived for decades according to a fixed and predictable rhythm of life that is determined by the seasons and the needs of his animals. In addition, there is the contrast between the rich north and the poor, still largely semi-autarkic south, which is so characteristic of Italian society. We see the inhabitants of the nearby village in a square near the cafe watching a report about the completion of the Pirelli skyscraper in Milan: a symbol of the decadent über-capitalism versus the pure natural phenomenon that is central to the film. In a way you could even say that the cave is ‘colonized’ by the cavers from the north.

Although ‘Il buco’ is a cinematic gem and is full of interesting and hidden associations for those with enough imagination, it is not a film for everyone. It is in fact a typical ‘slow burner’ that gently ripples along, completely in line with rural life in a rustic southern Italian place where the clock seems to have stood still for decades. But the beautiful images, attention to detail and the organic, mystical character of ‘Il buco’ more than make up for that.

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