To shoot Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino’s eclectic dialogue-free drama “Il Buco,” about a group of speleologists who in 1961 discover Europe’s deepest cave, veteran Swiss director of photography Renato Berta and Frammartino first had to do some soul searching.
“To prepare, with Michelangelo, we watched lots of movies together that we agreed and disagreed about,” he says. Then, after those discussions, “the photography came as a consequence.”
The ace cinematographer and bold experimenter, who has worked with European greats such as Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Éric Rohmer, Manoel de Oliveira, and who lensed Louis Malle’s 1987 Venice Golden Lion winner “Au revoir les enfants,” had never grappled before with what Frammartino describes as “the challenge of this cave’s utter darkness.”
“But after shooting 120 movies I am not interested in doing the type of things I’ve done before,” Berta points out.
Set in the 1960s, “Il Buco” — which launched in competition at the Venice Film Festival — depicts the journey of a group of young speleologists exploring the bottom of the Bifurto Abyss, in a pristine plateau in the Southern Italian region of Calabria. The “buco”, which means hole in Italian, is 700 meters (2,296 feet) deep. Their mission goes unnoticed by the inhabitants of a small nearby village, but not by an old shepherd whose solitary life is interweaved with the group’s descent.
For Frammartino and Berta, the task, to put it simply, was to portray the mission of the speleologists — who are played by real speleologists — and which, besides plumbing its depth, involves the complicated process of mapping the cave.
Frammartino has noted how the film would not exist without its speleologist safety team. They were crucial to help lay down a big heavy roll of fiber-optic cable that stretched for hundreds and hundreds of meters inside the cave. That was used to transmit visual information to a high-quality screen outside, where Berta, who was 75 at the time and never descended down the cave, was positioned. The fiber-optic cable allowed Berta to control the camera aperture in real time. “Some shots have at least eight different f-stops — that’s something that I’ve never done in my life,” he says. As the Sony digital camera inched down, held by a camera operator, Berta “would slowly open the aperture remotely from above.”
As for the lighting, Berta illuminated only the parts of the cave where the speleologists were working.
“The choice we made is that when there is someone down there alone we would use them to illuminate the cave, which we did by putting a lamp on their helmet, which is what the amateur speleologists in those days wore.”
The speleologists also had some LED light diodes behind them, but nothing else. “So you would go from total darkness to the light of a person exploring these depths for the first time,” says Berta, who said they were able to do this thanks to digital technology.
So during the six-week shoot, Berta’s role was, yes, as director of photography, “but also to be in constant dialogue with the director who was down in the cave, with the actors, assistants, and the camera operator.”
Then there were the externals, which were shot with a “totally opposite philosophy,” Berta notes.
Whereas “down in the cave our starting point was absolute black, as black as you can go, “in the externals even when you have black it’s always different shades of black. And even when you have images where the camera doesn’t move “the light always changes from the start to the end of the shot, as it changes in nature,” he says.
But down in the hole, you obviously don’t have natural light changes, even though the frame changes. So in this film there is “a game,” he says, “a dialogue between outside and inside.”
Berta calls this unique film a “gamble”, which it certainly is. But what’s also sure, he says, is that “we gave ourselves the resources to do our best to make this gamble work.”