Il Buco, a disturbing docu-drama about Italy’s secret underground caves

Michelangelo Frammartino’s hypnotic new film takes us 700 meters to Italy Bifurto Chasm

Hypnotic and breathtaking once immersed in its relaxed rhythms, Il Buco is essentially the quietest rock doc out there. The background is simple: in 1961, a group of speleologists descended 700 meters into the abyss of Bifurto, to discover that the underground caves of Calabria were the third deepest in the world. So, half a century later, the Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino has recreated this expedition with actors who don’t really act, in a documentary that isn’t really a documentary, with moving images that sometimes don’t even seem to move.

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

For instance, Il Buco can sometimes seem more fascinated by the tranquility of the rural environment than by the expedition itself. In long, uninterrupted shots, an elderly shepherd surveys the majestic mountains from afar, and locals stroll through town without a smartphone. When the subterranean adventures begin, cave mappers are in no rush either; clinging to ropes, they calmly plunge into darkness, behaving as if they had never looked Lowering.

Behind the scenes, it was a different 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 big smile and uses an interpreter, I am often taken aback by the possible 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 you’ve woken up, and the fear is that you’re trapped inside of you and something happened.

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

To survive in pitch black, cave mappers rely on torches and flares, all of which cinematically reveal the geology of what lies below: rock formations that have evolved over millennia, but which have not yet been tarnished by mankind. It turns out that other creatures are just as puzzled.

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

At cave camps and expeditions, Giuliani noticed that explorers de-stressed by playing games beforehand. Il Buco therefore includes men kicking a soccer ball over a cave opening in the ground, only for it to end up falling so far down the hole that any thud is inaudible. “With a fall of 42 meters, the ball becomes lethal,” says Giuliani. “It adds tension and another layer of meaning.”

“Spelunkers play a lot, even when exploring a cave,” says Frammartino. “It’s their way of handling a dire 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 you’ve woken up, and the fear is that you’re trapped inside yourself” – Michelangelo Frammartino

Frammartino made his directorial debut in 2003 with He dono, a slow, wordless drama about an abandoned town in Calabria. His 2010 follow-up, The quattro volte, also slow and wordless, was a riff on Pythagoras’ belief that we live four lives: as mineral, vegetable, animal and human. Unsurprisingly, Frammartino has spent his years between features in the world of art installations. “I consider cinema as an in situ installation,” he says. “There’s the screen placement, the audience placement, and there’s the darkness that stands out.”

In Frammartino’s 2013 short film Alberiwhich was projected onto a ceiling at MoMa, an Italian village is photographed similarly to Il Buco, except that CGI-compatible trees roam the streets. To my surprise, post-production gimmicks occur throughout Il Buco. “The clouds were accelerated. When you see cavers, maybe it’s two fused takes. When we were shooting, fall was coming, so we had to recolor the leaves. He tells me that the sound team, who mixed the film twice, worked the most hours on set. “But in a few places they used archival sounds because of specific birds.”

In 1961, the year cavers went underground, the Pirelli Tower was erected in Milan as a symbol of Italian prosperity. Frammartino, a trained architect, inserts archival newsreel footage onto the 127-meter skyscraper as an ironic juxtaposition. These days, I note, people like Jeff Bezos proudly soar into space and leave Earth behind.

“There is a strong parallel,” says Frammartino. “European Space Agency instructors actually train in caves in Sardinia. The people who teach these multi-billionaires learn their craft in caves.

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

When astronauts cross the Kármán line and see Earth as a small dot, they supposedly gain an enlightened perspective of life on our planet. Was it the same after shooting Il Buco? “Yes,” said Frammartino. “I knew the mountain extremely well before. Or I thought I did. I knew the cattle, I knew the landscape. But when I came down and realized there was something down there, I came back and just looked at the surface as a surface. Once you’ve descended into a cave, everything else looks different – you know there’s another dimension.

Maybe the movie buffs will leave Il Buco similarly changed when they step out into the street, curious about the rat-infested sewers under the sidewalk. Be that as it may, Frammartino compares his actors to Lucio Fontana, the Argentinian-Italian artist who, in the 1950s, slashed the canvases. “In the main shot, you see a tiny caver in the distance, trying to get into this crack in the earth,” the director explains. “It’s the same thing. You just have to cut something to enter it and explore another dimension.

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