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Il Buco, an eerie docu-drama about Italy’s secret underground caves

Michelangelo Frammartino’s hypnotic new film takes us 700 metres into Italy’s Bifurto Abyss

Hypnotic and jaw-dropping once you dive into its relaxed rhythms, Il Buco is essentially the quietest rock doc in existence. The background is simple: in 1961, a group of speleologists lowered themselves 700 metres into the Bifurto Abyss, only to discover that the underground caves of Calabria were the third-deepest in the world. So half a century later, Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino has recreated that expedition with actors who aren’t really acting, in a documentary that’s not really a documentary, with moving images that sometimes don’t even seem to be moving.

With little by way of plot, Frammartino’s acclaimed third feature (it won the Special Jury Prize at Venice Film Festival) isn’t for everyone. But while any screening may have a handful of walkouts, those who remain will be enraptured by a singular, time-bending experience that’s set simultaneously in 1961 and the present. After all, in a parallel mission, Frammartino is tunnelling into the terrain of what a movie can do if viewers accept the challenge.

For instance, Il Buco can sometimes seem more fascinated by the tranquillity of the rural surroundings than the expedition itself. In long, unbroken shots, an elderly shepherd studies the majestic mountains from a distance and the locals stroll around town without smartphones. When the underground adventures commence, the cave-mappers are similarly unhurried; while hanging onto ropes, they calmly plunge themselves into the darkness, behaving as if they’ve never watched The Descent.

Behind the scenes, it was another story. “The first time we went down the hole in 2016, it took 20 hours,” says Frammartino at the Mayfair Hotel during the London Film Festival. “I thought I was going to die. Every time I pulled on the rope, I thought it was going to break.”

As the 54-year-old director speaks Italian with a huge smile and uses an interpreter, I’m often wrongfooted by the eventual translation. “When you sleep in a cave, you sleep in darkness. Then when you wake up and open your eyes, there’s nothing. You doubt that you’ve woken up, and the fear is that you’re trapped inside yourself, and something’s happened.

“That experience stayed with me for months, to the point that when I was back in Milan, I would wake up in the morning and be not quite sure if I was in my bed or in a cave.” (In English, Frammartino adds, “Months!”)

To survive in pitch blackness, the cave-mappers rely on torches and flares, all of which cinematically reveal the geology of what’s underneath: rock formations that have evolved for millennia, yet to be tarnished by mankind. Other creatures, it turns out, are similarly perplexed.

“It’s not a gradual descent into the cave,” says Giovanna Giuliani, who’s credited as a co-writer, casting director, and acting coach. “There’s a 42-metre drop to start with, which sometimes not even the animals understood the danger of. You would find lizards and snakes that didn’t understand what the edge was.”

At speleologist camps and expeditions, Giuliani noticed that explorers would destress by playing games beforehand. Il Buco thus includes men kicking a football over a cave opening in the ground, only for it to eventually fall so far into the hole that any thud is inaudible. “With a 42-metre drop, the ball becomes lethal,” Giuliani says. “It adds tension and a different layer of meaning.”

“Speleologists play around a lot, even when they’re exploring a cave,” Frammartino says. “It’s their way of dealing with a grim situation.”

“When you sleep in a cave, you sleep in darkness. Then when you wake up and open your eyes, there’s nothing. You doubt that you’ve woken up, and the fear is that you’re trapped inside yourself” – Michelangelo Frammartino

Frammartino made his directorial debut in 2003 with Il dono, a slow, wordless drama about a vacated town in Calabria. His 2010 follow-up, Le quattro volte, also slow and wordless, was a riff on Pythagoras’s belief that we live four lives: as mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Unsurprisingly, Frammartino spent his years in between features in the world of art installations. “I think of cinema like a site-specific installation,” he says. “There’s the placement of the screen, the placement of the audience, and there’s the darkness which comes forth.”

In Frammartino’s 2013 short Alberi, which was projected onto a ceiling at MoMa, an Italian village is shot similarly to Il Buco, except CGI-enabled trees wander through the streets. To my surprise, postproduction tricks occur throughout Il Buco. “Clouds were speeded up. When you see speleologists, maybe it’s two takes merged together. When we were shooting, autumn was coming, so we had to recolour the leaves.” He tells me that the sound team, who mixed the film twice, worked the longest hours on the shoot. “But on a couple of locations, they used archive sounds because of specific birds.”

In 1961, the year the speleologists went underground, the Pirelli Tower was erected in Milan as a symbol of Italian prosperity. Frammartino, a trained architect, inserts archive news footage about the 127-metre skyscraper as an ironic juxtaposition. Nowadays, I note, the likes of Jeff Bezos are proudly jetting off into space and leaving Earth behind.

“There’s a strong parallel,” Frammartino says. “The instructors of the European Space Agency actually train in caves in Sardinia. The people who teach those multibillionaires learn their trade in caves.”

“In the caves, everything changes completely,” Giuliani says. “You lose your sense of time. You’re so used to walking on a flat surface, the way you guide your body is different. When you don’t have the sun, you get lost, and without recognisable, geometrical figures, you lose your sense of direction.”

When astronauts cross the Kármán line and view Earth as a tiny dot, they supposedly gain an enlightened perspective of life on our planet. Was it the same after shooting Il Buco? “Yes,” Frammartino says. “I knew the mountain extremely well beforehand. Or I thought I did. I knew the cattle, I knew the landscape. But when I went down and realised there’s something underneath, I came back and only looked at the surface as a surface. Once you’ve been down a cave, everything else looks different – you know there’s another dimension.”

Perhaps cinemagoers will leave Il Buco similarly changed when they step out onto the street, curious about the rat-infested sewers beneath the pavement. Regardless, Frammartino compares his actors to Lucio Fontana, the Argentine-Italian artist who in the 1950s would slash canvases. “In the master shot, you see a tiny speleologist in the distance, trying to get into that fissure in the earth,” the director explains. “It’s the same thing. You just slash something in order to enter it and explore a different dimension.”

Il Buco opens in UK cinemas on June 10, with previews from June 7. Find details about screenings here