Il Buco (The Hole)

In 1961, as Northern Italians marveled at the newly erected Pirelli skyscraper, a group of young speleologists headed south to the Bifurto Abyss in Calabria.  They would cross paths with anold shepherd of the Pollino plateau whose animals would graze where they set up camp.  That shepherd will face an internal descent as the explorers chart the depths of “Il Buco.”

Laura's Review: A-

Cowriter (with Giovanna Giuliani)/director Michelangelo Frammartino ("Le Quattro Volte") takes an extraordinary approach to a true life event with the convergence of a simple story of a shepherd’s last days with a breathtaking recreation of the mapping of what at the time turned out to be the world’s third deepest cave.  With the only spoken words being that of the shepherd calling to his flock or the distant (and not subtitled) chatter and singing of the expedition, Frammartino and his cinematographer Renato Berta ("Au Revoir Les Enfants") have created pure cinema, visual storytelling that achieves something spiritual.  And oh, what glorious imagery has Berta divined.

Berta establishes the old shepherd in a masterfully composed shot, the man sitting on an extreme slope, a large tree behind him.  We’ll return to that same perch multiple times until a shot that excludes him, a dramatic turn of events.  Meanwhile we watch the speleologists depart on a train into a violet/peach horizon, then disembark to walk single file along the narrow paths of a red-tiled stone village clinging to the side of a mountain, paths which look down upon roofs and pig sties in the caverns below.  These exceptional moments are like cherished memories of surprises found by taking the road less traveled on a foreign trip.  Then these paths comingle in profound and moving ways.

The shepherd’s humble home is shared with two other men, their relationship unclear.  Meanwhile that fissure in the rolling hills is distinctly feminine.  We’ll see two young women asleep in a tent, something snorting just outside.  Then a horse pokes its head between the flaps, the young women unaware of their visitor.  The explorers begin to make their descent after a few preliminary trials, goats peering in at their departure, cave walls revealing intricate texture via their glistening surfaces.  As they disappear beneath the earth, the shepherd’s donkey returns home without him, sparking a small search party whose lights glimmer like fireflies in the darkness.

There are moments of suspense, like the question of the shepherd’s condition when he is found amidst foliage, and humor, like the soccer ball which is bounced off a cage outcropping, ricocheting this way and that as it heads ever downwards.  Berta finds multiple locations within the cave to provide the speleologists’ halting progress their most compelling frame.  With the sound of water dripping beneath the earth still reverberating in our heads, the filmmaker shifts to a close-up of water being squeezed from a cloth into the supine shepherd’s mouth.

There is something tactile yet mysterious in how these two journeys are bound to the earth.  As Berta’s camera catalogs a cartographer’s delicate pen and ink charting of the Bifurto Abyss from above, we can only imagine the route of the shepherd’s journey, his calls still echoing among the Apennines.

Robin's Review: A-

In the 1960s, a group of young Italian speleologists had explored every cave system in the country’s north. They turn their attention to the south and the deepest cave in Italy, 700 meters or more to the bottom, known as “Il Buco.”

I did not know what to expect from this depiction of the 1961 discovery and conquering of Il Buco by the members of the Piedmont Speleological Group. At the same time, the Italians were in the process of building the highest skyscraper in Europe while the intrepid spelunkers climbed down the other way.

If this cave climbers' procedural were only that – the detailed nuts and bolts efforts to launch such a dangerous, unchartered climb – it would be a satisfying experience. It is fascinating to watch the progress and hard work these cave divers instill into their sport. Couple this interesting exploration with exemplary cinematography and skill in telling the story of the mission and that part of the film is complete unto itself.

But, there is another side to “Il Buco” that is just as enthralling as the spelunking. As the climbing procedural plays out and we learn the ins and outs of spelunking, we also get the story of a distant observer of the proceeds. An elderly shepherd watches the climbers as he tends his herd of cows and we, for the run of the film, also take part in the man’s life and, sadly, death.

So, what we have here is the story of two journeys into the unknown. One, the spelunkers’ mission into unchartered territory – and, as we watch, we also see the mapping of the cave in painstaking detail – is the meat of “Il Buco.” But, the old man’s story of a simple, hard life is told with great care as he tends his cows, gathers with his friend in the local drinking establishment and just living his life to its end.

This gentle meditation of two very unique journeys is done in almost a documentarian way as you live and climb with the spelunkers. (I, a claustrophobic, had a hard slog through some of the tighter places these intrepid cave people go through, but could not take my eyes of it. Well, maybe a little.) The old man’s story is equally enthralling but in a totally different way.

Grasshopper Films opens “Il Buco” in select theaters on 5/13/22.  Click here for a list of play dates.