‘Il Buco’ Film Review: Breathtaking Docudrama Takes a Stunning Journey into an Italian Cave

The latest from Michelangelo Frammartino (“Le Quattro Volte”) deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible

Il Buco
Grasshopper Film

This review of “‘Il Buco” was first published May 12, 2022, before its debut in New York City.

In 1961, a group of young Italian speleologists — scientists and researchers who study caves — journeyed deep into a heart-shaped crack in the Earth in the Calabrian valley. Michelangelo Frammartino’s “Il Buco” (“The Hole”), a painstakingly accurate recreation of this expedition, is nothing short of miraculous, and one of the year’s best films.

The film begins with the juxtaposition of an elderly shepherd tending to his flock on the side of the mountain, as villagers in a nearby town watch a television presentation on the construction of the Pirelli Tower in Milan. The television sits outside, its footage fuzzy. This is a village that lingers, still, in the old world, with stone houses carved into the side of the mountain. Soon, a busload of speleologists arrive from the North, from Piedmont, to climb deep into the Earth.

“Il Buco” is riveting and bewitching, a wholly immersive film, led soulfully by Frammartino’s confidence in saying less. The movie is mostly without subtitles (although the speleologists chat and murmur to each other) and also without score. The images speak for themselves. It’s not so much about what’s being said but rather what’s being done.

The Bifurto Abyss, the cave in question, is an opening in the middle of a lush valley. Cows peer in; the speleologists kick a soccer ball back and forth over its opening. It is both remarkable and unknown, and unremarkable and routine. Day after day, the team dives down into its wet depths, clinging to flimsy rope ladders. Though the cave is often narrow — claustrophobic viewers may get a little squeamish — there is never a sense of danger, only determination as the speleologists push ahead. The team, consisting of a handful of men and two women, snake through its damp tunnels, dropping flaming pieces of magazines down seemingly-bottomless holes.

“Il Buco” is tense without being scary, meditative without being dull, fascinating without being esoteric. Under the watchful eye of cinematographer Renato Berta (“Au Revoir, Les Enfants”), the southern Italian landscape is awe-inspiring and immense. Often the screen fills with both technical and artistic feats, from the darkest tunnels to the sun rising over the mountaintops. How Berta was able to place the camera, panning across cramped sections of the cave, is both a puzzle and a gift.

It’s not all spectacle, however; moments of humanity are given equal, beautiful weight. The speleologists play with local children while testing their headlamps, before going to sleep in the back room of the local cathedral, snoozing next to a ceramic Jesus. The neighborhood dentist checks the teeth of a small boy. A shepherd sits plaintively on the side of a mountain.

What to make of the elderly shepherd, nameless and without spoken dialogue? The film returns to him throughout, a delicate piece of punctuation, as if the Bifurto Abyss and Calabrian landscape belong to him. He’s all-seeing and all-hearing, an almost mystical figure of gentleness and strength. “Il Buco” is not merely a study for study’s sake, but a look into the very human response to exploration and colonialism at a major pivot in history.

What’s incredible about “Il Buco” is its kaleidoscopic nature, the way in which its images can be interpreted by any viewer. For some, it will serve as a testament to science and exploration, a daring feat done safely and with curiosity. It is a glimpse of a country — and a world — at a turning point, the old world blending in with the new. For others, it will feel closer to a nature documentary, complete with verdant greens and lush pinks, animals idling in and out of frame, the softness of a horse’s muzzle nudging a sleeping speleologist’s leg. It is a PBS special by way of Terrence Malick. It is not like anything in theaters right now.

If there’s a flaw in “Il Buco,” it’s not in the film itself, but in its distribution within a struggling industry. Opening on one screen in New York and, in a week, one screen in Los Angeles, “Il Buco” is destined to hit the independent and repertory cinema circuit. But “Il Buco” deserves the biggest possible screen, the most immersive experience possible. It deserves IMAX, or 4DX, or the side of a building, but that’s not the fault of “Il Buco” or even its distributor. As it stands, Frammartino’s film is nothing short of a masterpiece, a marvel of filmmaking and a dazzling portrait of the mysteries of our world.

“Il Buco” opens Friday in Los Angeles after debuting May 13 in NYC.