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VENICE 2021 Competition

Michelangelo Frammartino • Director of Il buco

“We descended 400 metres to film the ungovernable”


- VENICE 2021: The Italian director joined up with a group of speleologists in a Calabrian cave to recreate the expedition dating back to 1961

Michelangelo Frammartino • Director of Il buco
(© La Biennale di Venezia - Foto ASAC/Giorgio Zucchiatti)

Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il buco [+see also:
film review
interview: Michelangelo Frammartino
film profile
is competing in the 78th Venice International Film Festival. The director spoke to us about how he accompanied a group of twelve speleologists at a depth of four hundred metres, camera in tow, into the Abisso del Bifurto (the Bifurto Abyss) - a cave located in the highlands of Pollino, Calabria - in order to recreate the first exploration of the cave in 1961.

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Cineuropa: Where did the initial impetus for this film come from?
Michelangelo Frammartino: My meeting with Giulio Gecchele in 2016 during a speleological expedition which I was taking part in. And then, thanks to Antonio Larocca, a well-known speleologist from Calabria, I was introduced to the Bifurto cave, where I discovered an interesting setting for a film. I learned about a group of youngsters who, in 1961, travelled down from the North, which was in the midst of an economic boom, and chose that particular cave. They weren’t looking for notoriety, they didn’t even document their experience. They just took a few photos.

At the beginning of the film, we see vintage images of the Pirelli skyscraper in Milan. There seem to be two different temporalities at work: one speaks of the breakneck-speed transformation which Italy experienced in the 60s, while the other recounts an incredibly slow process. Is it a reflection on time?
The cave forces you to think about time. You don’t have the regular daytime-night-time cycle down there, or the changes in temperature which regulate our bodies and which are our reference points. You’re in the dark, the temperature is constant, and something takes place on a physical level, too. You feel like you’ve been down there for two hours when, actually, it’s been ten. You lose all notion of time when it comes to abysses.

And there’s also the juxtaposition of the industrialised North and the rural Calabrian culture.
We do still tend to look to the North to change things, but I believe there’s a really important Mediterranean culture which we should pay greater attention to.

Historically speaking, the expedition takes place at the same time as anthropologist Ernesto De Martino’s research in the South. Both these endeavours were characterised by the idea of introducing unknown territories to the rest of Italy. Are those places still partly unexplored?
I’m Calabrian, so I feel more like the explored party than an explorer per se. Calabria is a land full of wild nature, which has an informal and contradictory side to it. In this sense, it’s very Italian, because the concept of “non finito” is part of our country’s culture. Inevitably, with a camera in tow, you’re carrying out an exploration, but you have to do so with a great deal of care.

Was it frightening having to brave such levels of darkness?
It looks like a courageous film because we entered into the abyss, but I’ve always been afraid of vertical extremes: I have a phobia of heights, so I was incredibly scared to begin with. The first few times I entered into the cave, I was convinced the rope would break and that we’d never get out alive. The first time we dropped all the way to the bottom of Bifurto, we were overcome with fatigue; it took us 20 hours before we could go back up again. But when we realised that, in spite of our fear, the project was moving forwards, we felt stronger, and I realised we had to follow through on it.

They must have been difficult conditions for director of photography Renato Berta, too.
As we descended, with the camera in tow, to depths of 400 metres, the team of speleologists unravelled an enormous reel of optic fibre which transmitted the images we were filming to Berta. I had headphones on to communicate with him, while he sat in a dark room in front of a high-definition screen. It was as if he was already a viewer in a movie theatre while we were on set. There’s also the absence of light, which needs to be embellished with sounds. We opted for excellence when making this film and used a Dolby Atmos 5.1, with almost 50 audio sources, in order to recreate the disorientation we felt.

Was it difficult combining reality and fiction?
People say that my work is part of the reality cinema wave, that it’s characterised by the ungovernable which can arise during filming. Naturally, when you’re dealing with a reconstructed event, the situation is different. But, in this instance, given that we were working with speleologists in such a restricted space, their movements couldn’t be dictated by filming requirements. Consequently, the uncontrollable element is still there, and it’s a good thing. If the film escapes our control, it undoubtedly makes it more interesting. Renato Berta worked on the conflict between our urge to control things and the desire for life to take the upper hand.

What does it mean to you to be in competition at the Venice Film Festival with a film that’s so different from all the others?
Mine is a karstic form of cinema, which runs underground. I pretend to be at ease here in Venice, but I’m really not. And the competition was a surprise; we thought we were headed for one of the other sections.

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(Translated from Italian)

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