I realise I'm lucky in that I have a nice little Curzon arthouse cinema in the half of London I live in, and can thus pop along most weeks to see foreign films and strange indies, the sort that don't necessarily make the multiplexes, but this luxury almost blew my mind last weekend. I won't pretend that drink hadn't been consumed the night before, but a Sunday afternoon trip to see the Italian crime saga Angels Of Evil seemed an ideal way to shift the cobwebs and concentrate the mind.
Having checked the times online - 14.30 - I went along in good time, and purchased my ticket. The little chalkboard above the door of the Green Screen (there's also a Red and a Blue, which is a sweet way of doing things) clearly indicated that the programme began at 14.30 but the film itself started at 14.50. It was approximately 14.40, so in I went, expecting to catch the end of the adverts - good! - and decompress with the trailers - good! - but with the houselights already dimmed, I was slightly disorientated by the total darkness on entering the auditorium.
The screen was black, and no illumination was forthcoming. I hovered in the aisle. There was no sound coming from the speakers. Was this a break in the ads? What was going on? The picture cut from a near-blank screen to a bucolic fixed shot of a tree on a hillside. Now at least the cinema was lit up. I could see that the place was almost totally full. A good turnout for a subtitled film, I thought, and found a spare seat on the end at the back. But what was actually showing when the ads usually run? It wasn't yet time for the main feature, so I assumed it was an unadvertised short. They sometimes do this sort of thing at arthouses.
The shot of the tree cut to another fixed shot, this time of a hillside. Then an ant walking up the bark of the tree. The sound of a gentle breeze, broken by the sound of distant chatter. Some villagers seemed to be making their way up the hillside. Back to the tree again.
Now, I don't mind admitting, I was getting uncomfortable. I didn't know what I was watching with this seemingly captivated audience. I couldn't lean over and ask the man next to me, as that would be disruptive, and I'm nothing if not reverent in cinemas. If it was a crazy, esoteric short film about a tree, it would at least end soon; the main feature started in five minutes. But no, on it went. The tree was cut down. The trunk was stripped and transported back to a village square. It was then climbed, as part of some rural ritual. And chopped down. I was in a mildly fragile state. It was all becoming a bit too much for me. I considered leaving the auditorium to ask the friendly, youthful Curzon staff what this support feature was.
I stayed in my seat. (I will always be the first up and out of my seat if there's something awry with the projector, but there wasn't in this case; I suspected that in fact there was something wrong with me.) The tree trunk was chopped up and turned into a sort of pyre, then ritualistically covered, then burned, or smoked, to make charcoal. This process went on for another 10 minutes. And then I left to find the staff and work out what the hell was going on, and to find out if, perhaps I had been kidnapped by a government agency and was being subjected to mental torture.
You may be ahead of me. Angels Of Evil, the film I was at the Curzon to see, started at 15.30, as advertised, and the Italian film Le Quattro Volte, which was on before Angels Of Evil, its title clearly chalked above the door, was still showing when I stumbled into the auditorium in the dark. Now, Le Quattro Volte, by Michelangelo Frammartino, a meditative part-documentary/part-fiction shot in the hills of Calabria and built around the death of a goatherder, and the life cycle of a tree used to make charcoal, a medicine taken by said goatherder, has been showered with rave reviews. But when you come in half an hour before the end, unaware of what you are watching, it's somewhat perplexing.
I feel bad now for accidentally mistreating and misunderstanding the apparently exquisite Le Quattro Volte, but I was in no mood to consume it as an existential guessing game. I hereby vow to watch it from the beginning at the soonest opportunity, so that the significance of the goats, and the tree, and the charcoal, can be fully understood.
The moral of this tale? Read the chalkboards in arthouse cinemas. And get your ticket checked on the way in.