In 1961, while wealthy Milanese businessmen scaled the Pirelli Tower (Italy’s then newly-built and tallest building), Giulio Gècchele led the first expedition into its deepest abyss, Calabria’s 700-metre deep Abisso del Bifurto. For his third feature, Milan-born director Michelangelo Frammartino dramatises the expedition in a study of humanity’s hubris against nature’s immovable permanency.
The first shot of Il buco (‘The Hole‘ to use the English translation) is filmed from within the cave’s entrance, looking out from within. Beginning in complete darkness, the rising sun gradually penetrates the first few metres, revealing an entrance shaped like an enormous grin or perhaps a great bat with thick strands of moss hanging from its wings. It’s elemental – almost Gothic in fact – underscored by a deep silence that is broken only by the jangling of cow bells belonging to curious livestock come to peer in to the darkness. This opening shot establishes the primacy not of human perspective, but of the cave’s: we are not peering in at it, the abyss peers out at us.
The contrast between the comforting sounds of the cattle and the unsettling deep of the cave lay out the film’s thesis in a single image. The beauty of the pastoral is set against the sublime of nature’s permanence through visual juxtaposition alone; save for an archival clip of businessmen excitedly ascending the Pirelli Tower, the film is entirely wordless. Even the cave explorers communicate in primal yawps and shouts, mirroring the calls that the unnamed shepherd (Antonio Lanza) makes to his herd as they roam the Calabrian mountains.
Frammartino employs a minimalist narrative to give figure and shape to the film’s themes. While the speleologists explore and map the abyss, local villagers find the shepherd unconscious in the forest, returning him to his simple hut to try to nurse him back to health. In one sense, Il buco is a testament to human hubris, contrasting the self-satisfaction of our own temporary structures with the unknowable depth of nature’s works. A wayward football is swallowed by the hole; a picture of JFK torn from a magazine is symbolically set on fire and dropped downwards to briefly reveal the boundless depths.
However, despite such loaded imagery the film is not satirical. The Calabrian village shadowed by the immense mountains that surround it is not mocked for its impermanence, nor are the old shepherd or his cattle for their mortality or domestication. The deep lines across the shepherd’s hands and face are shallow compared to the vast, twisted strata of the mountains, but both are shaped by the same profound forces and inscrutable motions.
Frammartino has spoken of the efforts of the real-life speleologists as a form of colonisation; their efforts to map the Bifurto brought it out of the unknowable and transcendent into the dull bounds of codified human reality. Perhaps it is true that, in the end, venturing into the deep robs it of its mystery, reducing it to a mundane human structure. The mountain is, after all, more sublime when it is hidden behind the clouds. Yet the idea that we are even capable of subduing nature in all is profound vastness is surely hubristic in itself. The transcendent deep endures regardless, but by emphasising the perspective of the Bifurto itself, Il buco reveals that depth anew.