Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il buco is an artful rumination on humanity’s attempt to demystify the natural world, despite its ultimate and unending indifference to humanity. Depicting both a group of speleologists as they descend increasingly deeper into a cave in Italy’s Calabrian mountains and the farmer that watches on, the film makes up for its lack of story or dialogue with beautiful cinematography and sound design that evoke feelings on the natural world’s majesty and power.

Opening with long shots of the vast open landscapes the mountains offer, the monotonous jangling of cowbells echoing through the hillsides, symbolising humanity’s apparent mastery over nature. We then follow the speleologists as their van passes over glacial rivers and through the mountains, a mere speck in the immensity of the world around it, a world carved by natural forces long before humanity – evidenced by the decaying ugliness of the town that juts out of the mountainside.

It is in the dark confines of the cave that the film truly shines with a display of gorgeous cinematography that utilises light and darkness to beautiful effect, demarcating the intrepid explorers in a world that is wholly alien and visually hostile to their presence. That the film manages to highlight both the enormity of the mountainous region and the claustrophobia of the caves is testament to Renato Berta’s cinematography – but it’s the film’s incredible sound design that is undeniably the star. The seemingly endless echoes, as the speleologists drop rocks down into the vast black chasm, stipulate the sheer magnitude of the subterranean world the adventurers traverse.

Frammartino’s slow cinema style – that will undoubtedly frustrate a lot of people – exacerbates the overbearing sense of geologic time that prevails in this underground labyrinth untouched by humanity. This notion is compounded by the film’s concurrent story of a farmer whose worsening health coincides with the speleologists’ arrival. As the farmer’s body begins to falter, his mortality looming large before him, the explorers venture deeper into the previously unexplored caves, sculpted over millennia unseen by those above ground with the contrast between geologic time and human time plain to see.

The film’s themes are perhaps best encapsulated by the film’s only subtitled scene, which sees a journalist ascend the side of a skyscraper. The height of this monument to humanity’s decadence is dwarfed by the depth of the cave established once the speleologists’ work is complete. Though they have successfully mapped the cave, the feeling of nature’s rejection to humanity’s presence in the cave is unshakeable, and Frammartino’s slow cinema embraces the cave’s geologic time to profound effect. Stunning and melancholic, Il buco beautifully captures the illusory nature of humanity’s mastery over the natural world.

★★★★

This review was written by Oli Gamble, member of the thatfilmbloguk team, American and Canadian Studies student, and co-host of the thatfilmbloguk podcast.