Thursday, September 5, 2019

Humanism and unforgettable faces: the cinema of Ermanno Olmi (Part 1 of two)

Back to the binge: The summer’s best rep-house film festival in NYC was, hands-down, the Walter Reade’s comprehensive retrospective of the fiction films of the extremely underrated (at least in this country) Ermanno Olmi. The fest allowed NYC movie buffs to take in the full range of Olmi’s fiction (he made dozens of docs, but that will wait for another time). It showed that, whether his choices were sheer perfection or misguided, he maintained a singular vision of the world for more than a half-century.

Olmi’s work was clearly the “next step” in neorealism, utilizing two tenets of that movement — the use of real locations and the use of non-professionals as actors — to create highly unique and quietly emotional dramas. His Catholic beliefs were reflected in his films but, more than anything, he was a humanist whose fiction films spotlighted a love of nature and an understanding of human foibles.

This particular entry will discuss seven of his initial fiction features, leaving out his Pope-ography A Man Named John (1965), which he was displeased with, and The Circumstance (1973), which I wasn’t able to catch when it was screened. I close this piece out with his biggest arthouse and film-festival “hit,” The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978).

That film was a turning point for him, as it made it easier for him to find funding to make whatever he wanted to make — which included at least two whimsical big-scale films that sadly the miss the mark. He never made a bad fiction film, but some of his later works go in very strange directions, in terms of plotting.

Olmi’s first feature, Time Stood Still (1958, no current U.S. release), was made when he was assigned to do a documentary about the building of a dam by his employer, the Milan division of the Edison Company (who, rather amazingly, allowed him to make fiction films on the weekends with their equipment!). The plot involves an older worker who has been overseeing a dam for a long time and is joined for a short while by a younger man. The two forge a kind of comedy team, with the older man being quiet and proper, and the younger man louder and playful. The drama of the film comes when an avalanche finds the two taking cover in a small WWII-era church in the area.

The first thoughtful conversation the two have is about a book the older man is reading, one the younger man admires. The older man says it depicts a time “when men were men… now they will sell each other out.” His advice to his colleague at one point is the pithy (and wise) “Listening to old people is never a mistake.”

Olmi’s first transcendent moment occurs when the older man takes care of the young gent when he falls ill in church — a light shines on the statue of the Madonna in one memorable image. The film is pleasant, lightweight and fun, as when the young man rocks out to a song by singer-actor Adriano Celentano (who was Olmi’s choice in 2008 to present him with a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival).

The seven films discussed in this piece all illustrate that the “smaller” Olmi’s ambitions were for a film, the better his films were. He was a master at crafting character studies, but the later films that imparted “big statements” sometimes fell short of the mark (and contained tangents that were better than the main plot of the film).

Il Posto (1961), available from Criterion, is one of the finest examples of his “small” work, as it is a character study about a young man from the provinces who travels to Milan to apply for a civil service job. The film is a low-key masterwork — it conveys the inhibitions of its lead character (Sandro Panseri), the protocol-driven pastimes of the civil service office, and the demure flirtation between our young hero and a young woman (Loredana Detto), conducted through glances, small details, and gorgeous location footage. Olmi uses a minimum of music in several scenes to better focus the viewer on the concerns of the characters.

The real masterstroke in the film, one that prefigures the digressions Godard took us on in Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), are the scenes in which we catch glimpses of the lives of our hero’s coworkers. In these moments we get a better idea of why the office functions the way it does (friendly in some regards and ridiculously territorial in others).

Parts of the testing (the physical and psychological parts) can be seen here, with English subs:

The film (which can be found in its entirety here, with no English subs) was shot on weekends using equipment owned by the Edison Company. Olmi was still an employee during the whole early period of his filmmaking career and was able to use the company’s resources to fashion his characters’ universe. Olmi got great performances out of his non-professional cast, including Panseri (who alternately looks like the young John Turturro and the young Jerry Lewis) and Detto (whom Olmi married).

His next film, The Fiancés (1963, available on Criterion as I Fidanzati), also deals with provincial Italians encountering the business world of the big city. In this case, the lead (Carlo Cabrini) nurses his love for a girl (Anna Canzi) from his home town while he does specialized work for his company in Sicily. We thus get a love story that is punctuated by documentary-style sequences about small-town life (the opening scene set at a dance hall is sublime) and the alienation and sense of “exile” felt by Italian workers in Sicily.

The love story that fuels the film is quite old-fashioned for early Sixties. It is passionate but takes place via letters and the occasional long-distance phone call. The fact that we feel for the leads as strongly as we do — especially when their romance is punctuated by sequences about the functioning of a factory — is a testament to Olmi’s storytelling and his very unique methodology.

The non-professional performers here are uniformly excellent, although Cabrini has a very tough-looking face that clashes with his character's sentimental demeanor. He looks at certain points if he wandered into the film from a spaghetti Western or a gangster picture.

Despite Olmi’s clear preference in his later years for “fairy tale” storylines (faith-based dramas with unnatural occurrences), one of the most interesting and durable aspects of his art is found in his modern urban tales. One Fine Day (1968, no current U.S. release) is the polar opposite of Il Posto, as it follows a balding, middle-aged ad exec (Brunetto Del Vita) who is financially comfortable, cheating on his wife, and has no moral compass whatsoever.

The ad exec’s life changes in a flash when he is driving one day and hits a farmer with a pushcart (the scene can be found here, without English subs, but it's mostly visual). The farmer ends up dying, and we watch the ad exec’s lawyer begin to brief him on what “really” happened  (read: the narrative that will get him off in court).

It is at this point that Olmi could’ve gotten preachy, but instead he uses his fine eye for documentary to simply chronicle the machinery of justice and shows us how the wealthy are allowed a different standard of justice than the poor. As always with Olmi’s best work, it’s astonishing to consider that the cast are all non-professionals. The lead in particular has a stubble-covered shaved head (because of hair loss) that indicates both age and vanity — and seems to be his own “look” in real life.

The jarring scene where the exec’s lawyer instructs him on how to recount the accident is a superb turning point, a moment where the viewer suddenly realizes what the film is really all about. And a final quick montage of the accident as it really happened, being “reviewed” by the exec indicates that, despite his getting a mere slap on the wrist, he realizes the gravity of what went on and won’t escape the memory of it.

The Scavengers (1970, no current U.S. release) is an absorbing, very small-in-scope period piece made for Italian television. Olmi could’ve made a suspense thriller out of the material but instead crafted another insightful, gently moving character study. It concerns a WWII veteran who comes home to his small town and can’t find steady work. He meets up with a clever old man who is making money by finding scrap metal — in the form of unexploded bombs from WWI hidden in the countryside.

Olmi’s veteran hero becomes the old man’s partner, using a modern metal detector, rather than the senior’s intuition-based methods of discovering the soil-covered bombs. (A segment from the film can be found here, minus English subs.) The average viewer, conditioned by years of Hollywood suspense films, watches them work, all the time thinking, “Will this be the bomb that kills them?”

If you’ve read this far, you'll know that is the very last thing that Olmi wanted to show, so instead we witness another group of scavengers getting blown up  and even then, we don’t see the carnage caused by the explosion, just the scavengers being taken away on stretchers.

The finale is suitably downbeat and would never pass muster in a Hollywood blockbuster. Our hero finally decides he’ll listen to his girlfriend's protests and stop searching for the bombs. His old partner tells him he’s a coward, but we know the young man made the right choice — because he eventually would have ended up being taken out of the area on a stretcher.

The last “ordinary” contemporary film that Olmi made in the Seventies (although it’s far from normal for any other director) is the wonderful light comedy In the Summertime (1971, no current U.S. release). The film follows a schlemiel character (Renato Paracchi) who colors maps for a living — and gets very angry if his editors at the publishing house change the hue of his colors.

In addition to that extremely OCD profession, he has another very unique profession — he is a student of heraldry who likes conferring titles on interesting people he randomly meets in his travels across the city. This is an utterly charming (and bizarre) scenario that is underscored by his fixation with a door-to-door saleswoman (Rosanna Callegari), whom he is convinced is a princess.

The romantic thread wanders into overtly silly areas, ending in a broadly comic scene where our antihero causes a ruckus at a refined flower show. But, as is always the case with Olmi, there are also tangents that are just as good as the central plot, as when the leads visit a “count” who has a vintage collection of ornate instruments. An enchanting passage that ends too soon and does nothing to advance the plot, but who cares?

The last section of the film finds the lead getting arrested for his heraldic hijinks. It seems an old man he conferred a title on was a pensioner who abruptly lost his pension when he became “nobility.” The key witness for the defense is the saleswoman, who declares that our antihero changed her life, and that she is now a princess because he made her feel like one. (The whole film can be found here, without English subs.)

Olmi’s work was never overtly sentimental in the noxious Spielbergian mode, but at times (as he did quite often in the next film), his writer’s mind produced some moments of sheer beauty. This young woman’s profession of faith in the schlemiel-hero is one of those, a moment in which a crazy yet harmless vocation can be seen as a beautiful gift that emboldens everyone who receives it.

One wishes Olmi made more contemporary urban comedies, but In the Summertime was the last one. One also wishes the compilation of three shorts he made in the Sixties, Racconti di giovani amori, was accessible to American audiences; the first wonderful short, “The Crush” (1967) is on the Criterion disc for Il Posto, but the other two are nowhere to be found (and the compilation was left out of the Lincoln Center retro).

Olmi’s best-known film is undoubtedly his masterfully low-key epic The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978, available from Criterion). Based on stories told to him by his grandmother, the film follows the activities of a group of peasant farmers in the Lombardy region at the turn of the last century.

When I interviewed Mike Leigh for the Funhouse, he cited it as his “desert island” film, one he never tires of re-seeing. In rewatching it for this spree of Olmi’s work, I realized how the film “works” on the viewer in a subtle (again, non-Spielbergian) way and, thanks to the Criterion edition, discovered how Olmi’s methodology was used to best effect in this 180-minute picture that seems plotless but is in fact constructed out of a series of significant events.

Many films were said to have revived the neorealist model of filmmaking and taken the “next step” in that movement. Tree truly did build on what Rossellini, De Sica, and company created in the post-war period, while also offering something new and original — a faithful historical recreation that deals not with nobility and the “tragic” lives of the rich but with the day to day struggles and victories of the poor.

Olmi wasn’t often credited as the d.p. on his films (he had that title on only four of his fiction films and on a small amount of his many, many documentaries), but interviews with his colleagues find them saying that he was indeed behind the camera shooting the bulk of his films himself (and assigning that task in the credits to another crew member). Although the framing is uncommonly “fixed” here, it is noted in the extras on the Criterion disc that Olmi shot Tree using a handheld camera, which makes this evocation of a long-gone era look like a documentary of the period.

The characters in the film are seen going about their daily chores, engaging in trades that were rendered obsolete when farming machinery came in. We also see a number of rituals that provided entertainment (storytelling, singing) for the community of peasant farmers. In case we don’t understand the farming, gardening, and social rituals, Olmi carefully inserts a smart tool for exposition — the young children and grandchildren of the farmers ask their elders what is happening, and so we learn the significance of certain practices.

The crew members who speak in the Criterion extras say that Olmi requested that the cast members and nearby farmers in the Lombardy district — who were the grandchildren of the type of farmers depicted in the film — bring to the shoot any artifacts from the period that they might have in their homes, to enhance the sense of verisimilitude.

Some of Olmi’s films have plots that relate directly to his faith. In Tree that aspect is conveyed mostly through the use of Bach on the soundtrack. A priest is (of course) a key member of the community, but it is the Bach compositions that add a spiritual aspect to the proceedings, without ever hammering the point home. 

The word “serenity” is used to describe the film in the DVD supplements, and that is indeed the phrase which best describes the mood of the film. Even when an event is deeply moving, the modest nature of the characters and the land that provides their livelihood (which Olmi specified in interviews is indeed a central “character” in the film) makes it apparent that the filmmakers are not wringing tears out of us, but rather showing us how our forebears lived.

The dearth of information about Olmi in English makes, again, the Criterion supplements invaluable. In the extras, it is noted by his crew members that he did have a have a script for Tree which he gave to the crew, but not to the actors. He wanted the performers to contribute to the dialogue by putting his ideas in their own words.

Thus, the way he directed his cast was to speak to them quietly and individually, telling them what he needed them to express as their characters, all the while suggesting that they put it in their own words. This instinct for discovering the right person for the right role never failed him, he claimed in interviews. Having seen 17 of his films in a short span of time, I can report that, while some of his later storylines are uneven or misguided, the acting in his films never hit a false note, since the authenticity of both the character’s “look” and their behavior was Olmi’s first concern.

And faces. He says in one of the two interviews on the Criterion disc that “Faces are the most important thing in cinema.”

While Tree was popular the world over and won many awards, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it was drubbed by Leftist intellectuals in Italy, who felt that it conveyed a sort of “mourning” for the time when workers were mistreated by their “padrones.” Novelist Alberto Moravia in particular — who was a very close friend of both Bertolucci and the ultimate iconoclast, Pasolini — condemned the film for not showing the peasants revolting against one cruel action taken by the landowner in the film’s final scenes.

Olmi responded quite eloquently to this charge on a 1981 episode of the British series “South Bank Show,” which is found on the Criterion disc (the clip above with English dubbing is from this show). He maintained that the peasants’ response to this event was bearing “silent witness” to it. We know they will remember it for the rest of their lives, and they are not in a position to stage an uprising. (A Marxist speaker is shown in a carnival scene in the film, but the unions that liberated the peasants from the padrones — as depicted in Bertolucci’s 1900 — arrived years later.)

Instead, the filmmaker emphasized that the rebellion that occurs in the film is when the main boy (who receives the gift of the titular clogs from his father) attends school outside the confines of the farm, as is urged by the local priest. That influx of knowledge will change the community, and though the result will create a small change, it is a decisive one (as school wasn’t considered as an option for children in this region in the period depicted in the film).

All the stories that can be found in English depict Olmi as a mellow, easy-going perfectionist (quite the combination). Thus, it’s exhilarating to see the filmmaker defend his film in such an eloquent (yet still pissed-off) way, especially on a foreign TV show.

Some bonuses:

The Lincoln Center Olmi festival trailer. Very well-edited but could’ve been much longer. (As it was, those of us who saw the films at the Walter Reade saw this every time we saw a film there and never grew tired of it.)

A Cinzano ad made by Olmi, with the Bee Gees’ “Odessa” on the soundtrack!

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