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Il Buco review – ruminations on life and death at one of the world’s deepest caves

Michelangelo Frammartino's quiet and mediative new film explores a 700 metre abyss located in the Calabria region of Italy

First, a stone is dropped into the cave. Seconds pass, and you hear the clunk. Then a bundle of lit paper, lighting up the chasm in a smudge of amber as it floats down. Later, a football accidentally rolls in by accident, never to be seen again. Il Buco spends its runtime either in this cave (the Bifurto Abyss) or in the nearby village, deep in the Calabrian hills of southern Italy. It is a documentary recreation of the first expedition to reach its bottom back in 1961, reaching almost 700 metres into the Earth. But this is a deeply meditative, peaceful film, and only brief snippets of text at the start and close provide context.

It has been over ten years since director Michelangelo Frammartino’s previous feature, The Four Times, also a document of Calabrian life. If you’ve seen that film, you should expect much of the same here: both are exquisite, dialogue-free ruminations on life, death, and the passing of time. But where The Four Times gazed up above into the heavens, Il Buco gazes deep into the bowels of the Earth. For the most part, our focus is purely on the exploration of the cave itself, and an old, ailing cowherd who spends his time on the mountainsides and tending to his flock.

For all the wonder and awe of the cave, the presence of the old cowherd suggests that for the locals it is simple a cave – a hole in the ground to avoid falling into, irrelevant to day-to-day life. But for the cavers, presumably hailing from the north of Italy, it is a landmark to conquer. The cavers are oblivious to the cowherd, unaware of his falling ill and becoming bedridden, simply carrying on with their task.

Italy’s north/south divide remains trenchant in the country, with money flowing northwards, leaving the south comparatively underdeveloped. As a result there’s a history of internal xenophobia and snobbery from northerners towards southerners – the mitteleuropan, “cultured” northerners setting themselves against the “backwards” southerners. Calabria itself remains one of the least developed parts of Italy, and one senses that Frammartino – born in Milan to Calabrian parents – is keenly aware of this bifurcation.

Our journey into the cave then, is taken matter-of-factly. The activity of the cavers is presented just as an activity, without comment. The awe comes solely from the nature itself, the presence of these beautiful images on our screen, of shafts of light flaring across untouched caves, or of the sunset enveloping the countryside. There is none of the philosophical existentialism of Werner Herzog in his Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but there is certainly a subtle awareness of both the wonder of this cave and the contradiction at the heart of its exploration – of northerners exploring and treating something the southerners are familiar with like a discovery.

None of this is ever stated out loud, and therein lies much of the magic. This is a film to wash yourself away in, to allow its understated style to flow freely through your headspace. A truly refreshing work of art.

Il Buco is released in UK cinemas on 10 June.

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