VOICES THROUGH TIME (Franco Piavoli, 1996)

In a bucolic Italian village, Castellaro, Franco Piavoli’s Voices through Time (Voci nel tempo) records a cycle of the four seasons that, as readers of poetry know, shimmers at once with both the mortal human round and the eternal condition of spirit, that is, the cosmic permanence encompassing this round. What we witness are the simplest activities: children at play; adolescents in the first blush of sensuous sociability; a wedding party; an old man and a child, hand-in-hand, walking across wintry ice. The seasonal cycle is compressed into a single day, from dazzling sunlight to subdued, mysterious dusk.

The film, which is non-narrative, nevertheless tells the story of life—human life. It contains no conversational dialogue in the foreground, yet it is full of sound; the “voices” to which the title refers are human voices, and also sounds of nature and of human activities—noises, if you will. Without a particular story and for all intents and purposes free of dialogue, then, Piavoli’s film is also nonprofessionally cast. It may be described as a heightened, poetic documentary claiming something of an antecedent, both in terms of style and subject matter, in Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique; or The Four Seasons (1947). The film also has something of the “feel” of Ermanno Olmi’s Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978) and the final segment, about the old man in harmony with Nature, of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990).

Voices through Time is a lyrical ode on ordinary life. I confess: At the outset I experienced unease, because it appeared to me that the shots—and, worse, shots which were overpoweringly beautiful—were being held a tad too long. Briefly, I mistook what I saw for self-indulgence, artiness, the poetical in lieu of the poetic. Soon it became clear, however, that this slight holding of shots is part of the film’s expressiveness, the continual stretching of time, one, to evoke our human desire to hold on to a moment before it inevitably passes and, even more importantly, to suggest the manufacturing of memory out of emotions and experiences in time. Indeed, the patient tempo and sense of elongation that Piavoli applies to his film project a paradox: stillness revealing the rush of time that we attempt to forestall. Throughout, there is a poignant treble sense to the images, of what of life we have and are constantly losing—when we are young, without our even knowing it—for both of which memory forms an imaginative, nostalgic, even elegiac bridge. Piavoli has remarked that his film shows “the course of life like a river flowing without whirlpools, without waterfalls, to let people consider the incessant flowing of things, the unstoppable course of time.” The film is at once about our necessary submission to this course and our subtle resistance to it.

Does the title in Italian, I wonder, hold the same delicious double meaning as the English does, the idea of voices penetrating time, and the idea of voices reaching fruition, becoming fully formed and realized, as a consequence of time’s
passage?—a Wordsworthian slant, to be sure. An astonishing moment suggests that this must, at least should, be the case. Very late, after the film has already paid considerable attention to the young, a much older person hears outside his window a mother call “Alberto!” What an epiphany—a spot of time that collapses time as the distant shout—every mother’s shout—reverberates; for, along with the man in the film, we hear the name of some child in the present along with an echo from the man’s own past—an echo, really, from our own past, too.

But this is only the most moving moment from a film consisting of one moving moment after another.

Piavoli is the complete filmmaker; in addition to writing and directing the film, he lensed and edited it—and his color cinematography is gorgeous. (Some of it brings Impressionist painting vividly, fleetingly to life.) Most impressive of all, though, are the faces Piavoli shows—and holds—of those who, like most of us, are past their youth. His probing camera finds there suggestions of lives in some sense already lost; we watch these men and women—middle-aged or older, or even just barely past youth—watch the younger and the young, timeless existences to their traveled eye, revelations to the mind and to the heart of the course of time. Remarkably, Piavoli devises for some of these souls standing poses that are nevertheless relaxed into and of seemingly effortless duration: mature physical grace as a subtle protest and defense against time.

Implicit in Voices through Time, both for those in the film and for us viewing it, is a motto: “Look, and you shall see; see, and you shall feel. Listen, and you shall hear; hear, and you shall also feel.”

Here is fine art at its most inclusive, accessible and humane. Piavoli’s film is magical—but wholly of our familiar realm.

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