Who believes in the transmigration of souls? A month ago, I would have said that, provided you distinguish the doctrine from that of reincarnation, no one did. But that was before I finally caught up with Le Quattro Volte, first shown at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It is set in rustic Calabria, in the toe of Italy, where according to its director Michelangelo Frammartino a belief in animism still has a hold. He traces this back to the presence in Calabria in the sixth century BC of the Greek thinker Pythagoras, whose precise doctrine is elusive but who is credited with formulating the idea of the transmigration of souls. 2500 years later I learn from this film that it is still around.
The doctrine is a key to understanding the film which tells the story, in a narrative of great economy and elegance, of how when the goatherd dies, his soul migrates into the goat kid born immediately after his body is shut in its tomb, and how when the kid dies, lost in the forest and cold, its soul migrates into a mighty fir tree, and when following the village festival the tree is cut up and used for making charcoal, the tree’s soul metamorphoses into smoke escaping from the chimney in the last image of the film.
Something nagged at me that I had seen this before, and I tracked it down to Ozu’s penultimate film, The End of Summer (1961). In the final sequence, the family sits in the house mourning the passing of the Old Master. They then notice the smoke coming from the crematorium and stand to watch. Quite separately an elderly peasant couple washing vegetables by the river notice the smoke which means that someone has died. She comments piously that it is pitiful if it is a young person instead of someone older. He agrees but adds that new lives necessarily replace those that die, a sentiment which she rounds off by pronouncing, 'How well nature works.' The final image is not of smoke but of crows by the river and then perched on memorial stones. They caw and a gong sounds. The end. (The crows are not baleful, as I first thought, merely part of nature and Ozu might even be suggesting that the man's soul is reincarnated in a bird.)
'How well nature works.' That is Frammartino's idea, surely, in Le Quattro Volte: that humans live in a natural environment which compels their attention and the necessity of connection, and you can best illustrate this by the idea of the soul in the human flitting into an animal then into a tree and then into smoke, absorbed in effect into the cosmos.
© Tim Cawkwell 2011