One such place was located in the Serre, the mountainous area in the province of Vibo Valentia that is home to communities of shepherds and coalmen. Charcoal is produced there using a technique that has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. I was fascinated by what I saw and immediately felt the impulse to make a film there, though I didn’t yet know what that film would be.
Spending time with Calabrian shepherds gave me the opportunity to observe animals up close. I am intrigued by the animal world. Their unawareness of the camera naturally led me to accomplish something I had always aspired to in my filmmaking: transcending the boundary between documentary and fiction.
A friend of mine, Gigi Briglia, who later worked as a stills photographer on the film, spoke to me about the “Pita” festivities. This tradition, which dates back to the presence of the Lombard people in the region, takes place annually in the village of Alessandria del Carretto. The inhabitants leave the village and head for the forests where they look for a big fir tree, cut it down and haul it back to the village.
Thus, without any deliberate action on my part, the four realms had fallen into my lap: the shepherds represented the human realm; the goats, the animal realm; the tree, the vegetable realm; and the charcoal, despite its being derived from vegetable matter, was in fact transformed by the coalmen into mineral matter. This reminded me of a sentence that has been attributed to Pythagoras, which I paraphrase here: “Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another. Man is mineral because his skeleton is made of salt; man is also vegetable because his blood flows like sap; he is animal in as much he is endowed with motility and knowledge of the outside world. Finally, man is human because he has the gifts of will and reason. Thus, we must know ourselves four times.”
Pythagoras lived in Croton in present-day Calabria during the 6th century BC. His school taught the doctrine of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls. Legend has it that Pythagoras used to teach to his students from behind a curtain. Seated before this screen, not unlike in a modern-day movie theatre, for five years, his students would listen to their teacher’s voice and discover the hidden meaning of things, the meaning that lies beyond the veil that conceals them. This veil may cloud our gaze, but it also helps us understand that meaning is not perceived through sight, because it is made of number, soul and idea. Ultimately it is made of dust and luminous particles, like the ones we see in the projector’s beam when we turn around in movie theatres.
The deep-seated animistic beliefs that have survived in Calabria to this day are secretly and instinctively steeped in his thought. Pythagoras’ influence is echoed everywhere, from Plato’s doctrine of ideas, Kepler’s system of celestial spheres and Galileo’s geometric theology to Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return and Einstein’s physics. Pythagoras’ knowledge of Eastern philosophy led to his belief in metempsychosis and in the reincarnation of souls. He claimed to have lived past lives as an animal and as a plant and stated that the meaning of his own existence and that of others consisted in the eternal return to nature’s cycle.
Calabria is permeated by a sense of this cycle; anyone who goes there can feel it firsthand, whether they have read Nietzsche or not. In Calabria, nature is not hierarchical. All beings have a soul. You can see it when you look into an animal’s eyes. You can hear it in the sound made by charcoal, which sings as if it had its own voice. You can see it in the tall fir tree swaying on the peak of Mount Pollino, summoning us all to its side.
Though I never thought I would be drawn to this particular subject, it slowly took hold of me. I gave in to the force of this film the way one would surrender when faced with evidence of an enigma. This film was given to me as a gift; I did not will it through my own preexisting idea. Thus, I am not the creator of this film in the usual sense. I was simply the intermediary between matter and form in a process which might be likened to the one used by Giuseppe Penone, an artist who sculpts the shape of trees into wood, making life and form emerge from deep within matter, which are the logs he sculpts.
This is done by renouncing the idea of control.
Michelangelo Frammartino has created short films and video installations. His first feature film, Il dono (2003), received awards in several prominent international film festivals.