BFI London Film Festival presents Il Buco, coming soon to cinemas.
In the great lexicon of films, there is a vast array. There is the high-concept thriller, the low-concept character drama and the superhero flick. These get us to care about their worlds and invest in those characters. We find ourselves chomping at the bit at how these stories will unfold, and we hope that they’ll end just as well as they started. Then some films are less about the story and far more about the experience. Some play with the decompression of space and time like Tsai Ming-Liang’s Days, while others are straight-up experiments like Koyaanisqatsi (1982) or Samsara (2011).
These films are less about telling a story and more about creating an experience – a feeling, or a mood, shaped by an atmosphere. We engage with these films differently, precisely because they throw away much of what hooks us into cinema. Of course, they’re not for everyone, but they can beguile you if they find you at the right time; Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco is the latest addition to that list.
Frammartino’s cinematic experiment tells the story of the discovery of ‘Bifurto Abyss’, the third-largest cave system in the world, back in 1961. There’s little more to say than that. While we follow a crew of scientific spelunkers and an elderly herdsman, they are not your traditional leads or characters at all. The main character here is the cave. Well, how does one craft a feature that places a cave at its heart? Well, it doesn’t. Instead, it puts you as its lead.
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Il Buco’s main prerogative is a complete immersion of the spelunking efforts of the crew – secretly placing you alongside them in exploring the unheard and unseen. It’s far less an adaptation of events and more a tranquil expedition told entirely through the lens as guided by cinematographer Renato Berta. Having filmed in the actual cave system itself, Berta gets creative with his lighting; pieces of burning newspaper and lantern helmets light our way through this silently beautiful ancient landscape. Il Buco has no human voice, lending its strength to the vocalisation of nature itself. Gentle drops of water run from the infinite lengths of the walls as the ruffling of clothes gradually fades.
Because Frammartino’s work eludes any narrative essence, one begins to form their own. I couldn’t stop connecting the decline of the older shepherd to the gradual developments of the spelunker crew. It felt like a deeper metaphor inextricably linked the two, a battle between man and nature. I understood Frammartino’s editorial rhythm to reflect humanities growing incessant need to dominate nature, to understand everything, inadvertently disrupting the natural flow of tradition in the process. Here some kind of mystical bond feels forged and gradually stretched until worn, thin as a hair.
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Could I be reading too much into the film? It’s entirely possible, but it also shows the beauty of this specific class of cinema. Without a narrative, nor traditional cinematic structure, you make your own adventure. Frammartino gives you the images and the sounds; you become your own little director, editing the pieces of his puzzle into something new. It harkens back to that childhood imagination of entire worlds and mythologies crafted inside your own head, creating iron-clad forts from pillows, or engineering a gigantic cardboard box into your own personal spaceship. It’s like a reflection of your own critical thought, played back at you; how will you make your own Il Buco?
This is undoubtedly a film that must be experienced in the cinema. It is the ultimate darkness of the theatre room, silently surrounded by others, that truly immerses you into the speleologist’s journey. It also grants patience seldom found in home viewings, where distractions are infinite, and light constantly invades the darkness. You become entranced by the inviting mysticism of what the Bifurto Abyss could offer – you forget that you are but an observer, now armed with the duo of lanterns that are your very eyes.
If you let it, Il Buco can and will hypnotise you into becoming its very central character.