Sunday, September 29, 2019

Legends, allegories, and fairy tales: the later work of Ermanno Olmi (Part 2 of two)

The last three and a half decades of Olmi’s career were comprised of a fascinatingly diverse array of work. The only problem was that once he was able to make whatever he wanted, thanks to the tremendous success of The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), he made at least a few thoroughly bizarre choices and, while still using non-professional performers and real locations, he decisively moved away from neorealist (read: modern, urban) plotlines in favor of period pieces, allegorical dramas, and fairy tales.

The first project after Trees was the equally epic but far less absorbing Keep Walking (1983; out of print on DVD), a reworking of the tale the Magi. Olmi’s retelling is framed by the notion that the story is being told by a local church group as a Christmastime play.

Given that frame, it’s not surprising that this saga has little resemblance to the “three wise men” tale told to Christian children. In this version, the wise men each travel with a caravan and meet each other on the way to see the Messiah. Their eventual encounter comes about almost randomly, as a woman in the camp just happens to see the famous star heralding the birth.

Here is the meeting with Joseph and Mary and their newborn (with English subs):

And Olmi’s conclusion is very different from the happy-go-lucky version of events in standard theology — here, the caravan is terrified of Herod’s order to kill them, so they flee back to their respective homelands. In the process, they bury bread that they were given by Joseph. This causes the tribe’s translator to tell off the high priest — in his rant, he condemns the priests for cowardice and also for concentrating on death rather than celebrating the Messiah's life (clearly Olmi’s central message about the Catholic church).

The most surprising element about the film — besides its outsized running time — is the strain of humor that runs throughout it. There are (mostly mild) curse words, some bits of physical shtick, and a light tone in certain sequences — until we witness Herod’s slaughter of innocents, and the conventional dark side of the tale returns for the finale. The conclusion of the film is here, without English subs:

Very much the opposite of Walking, the oddball allegorical comedy Long Live the Lady! (1987) is a low-key, very Bunuelian satire of bourgeois etiquette. The film centers around a formal dinner party thrown by “Her Ladyship” in which corporate affairs will be reviewed and celebrated.

The cast of characters is comprised of the strange-looking dinner guests — including a priest in a body cast and a young “angel” of indeterminate gender — and the young wait staff, for whom this dinner is a baptism by fire for their future careers.

Olmi could be a very funny filmmaker when he chose to be, and here he invests the dinner with a number of amusing and outlandish elements. A rather creepy old woman is the person who welcomes the young people to the castle in which the meal is held (this lady happens to look quite like “Her Ladyship”). A plague of frogs occurs at one point; at another a gigantic fish is served to the diners. And a fleet of TV sets are rolled into the dining room to show how well the corporation has been doing.

Olmi was clearly intent on changing his style from film to film in the Eighties and Nineties, and Lady is one of his bolder, more entertaining experiments. The finale finds the geekiest of the wait staff (whose working-class dad visited him at the castle in an earlier scene) doing what we’d want to do — he bolts from the premises, seeking to get away from Her Ladyship and her castle full of rich and powerful weirdos. His flight looks to have succeeded, after a set-to with an angry guard dog, as the film ends.

The beginning preparations for the wait staff and the memories of our geeky antihero start here (clip without English subs):

The best of Olmi’s post-Clogs films is The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988; available on DVD from Arrow), an impressive picture that didn’t get U.S. distribution at the time of its release in Europe. It broke with his usual method, as the leading characters were played by professional actors; the supporting characters were played by non-pros. (The only previous occasion on which Olmi used professionals was a film he renounced, A Man Named John (1965), where Rod Steiger starred as Pope John XXIII, opposite a cast of pros including Adolfo Celi.)

Novelist Joseph Roth, an Austrian Jew who fled to Paris when the Nazis came to power and converted to Catholicism while living in Paris, wrote the novella on which the film is based. Roth was an alcoholic, and Holy Drinker is without doubt a film that is about self-ruin through alcohol, among other topics.

The plot hinges on a fairy tale occurrence: A homeless man (the late, great Rutger Hauer) living under the bridges of Paris is given a “loan” by a helpful stranger (Anthony Quayle). The stranger requests that, when he is solvent again, he repay the loan to a statue of St. Thérèse during a mass in a local church.

Thus, begins a pre-Groundhog’s Day trope in which Hauer’s character struggles to pay back the loan and, for various last-minute reasons, continues to miss mass over and over. In the first half of the film, this occurs because he meets benefactors; in the second half he is fleeced by malefactors.

Holy Drinker is a tale that can be interpreted in a number of ways. The two themes that seem to apply whether one views the film through a Christian lens or a secular one are these: in our world good luck seems to beget more good luck and bad luck only bad luck; and that it is incredibly hard to sufficiently pay back a person who has done you a live-saving good turn.

The whole film is currently hiding in plain sight on YouTube. This is the English-language version – the film was shot in English, with brief French exchanges left intact in both the English and Italian versions:

In the supplements found on the Arrow DVD, Rutger Hauer says that he was told by Olmi that Holy Drinker would be an action film (Hauer’s specialty), but that “the action will take place on your face.” Hauer is indeed terrific in the lead role, which is surprising, since he is playing a homeless man but is still the same physical powerhouse he was in genre films.

Given the chance to play a meaty role (something he was rarely given, outside of the work of Paul Verhoeven and Blade Runner), he excels here as the clochard, embodying him with a  sense of both solitude and sadness. Olmi was always a master at filming dialogue-less scene that are things of beauty, and there is one here, in which Hauer and other homeless drinkers stay inside a café for an entire evening during a torrential rain storm.

The Secret of the Old Woods (1993) is the second Olmi epic after Clogs and perhaps the most disposable of his “personal” works. An eco-parable about a man intent on having trees cut down that contain spirits, Secret is an extremely lightweight idea that goes on too long.

Still, anything Olmi made is better than, say, the best works of Ron Howard (damning by faint praise, I know). But live-action films with actors supplying the voices of trees, birds, and forest animals, wear out their welcome at any length over 90 minutes (and Secret runs 134 mins).

This is the original Italian trailer, which gives a flavor for the weirdness of animals and trees talking:

Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994; available on DVD from Shout! Factory) was a work for hire, but one that Olmi approached in his usual way, by using non-professional Bedouin actors, shooting in real Moroccan locations, and by presenting the action in a low-key, non-Hollywood manner.

The first in a series of Bible TV movies, the film has a frame device in which a grandfather tells his grandchildren the stories of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s Ark. Paul Scofield’s narration for the English version is stirring and perfectly “guides” the events, which are, again, at their best when there is a minimum of dialogue and the faces tell the story. The soundtrack blends an original score by Il Maestro, Ennio Morricone, and anachronistic pieces like a tune played by Max Roach. (Footage from the Iraq War is seen in a passage on war.)

Here is the DVD trailer, from Shout! Factory:

The Profession of Arms (2001) is a period piece that thankfully is not of epic length. It involves the “military de’ Medici,” Giovanni. It’s one of the more staid Olmi films, plotted and shot in a very straightforward, old-fashioned style. Giovanni, however, remains one of the most singularly unlikeable leads in Olmi’s work. 

Olmi worked best in humanist drama and light comedy, but here he does a fine job with a period battle scene:

Profession and Olmi’s next film contains sexuality, something he had to that time veered away from. (Holy Drinker contains several sequences when Hauer’s character has sex, but we see none of the “action” and only oblique views of the performers’ bodies). In Profession, there is a sequence with a topless woman being nuzzled by her lover. This is, of course, a film set in the Renaissance, so Olmi clearly felt he could bend his own rule for the de’ Medicis and their scheming contemporaries.

The full film is up on YT with English subs, in pieces:

Even during his “experimental” phrase following the success of Clogs, Singing Behind Screens (2003) was most certainly a major departure for Olmi — a retelling of a Chinese legend, acted by a primarily Asian cast and shot in two very different “modes.” Just in case that isn’t a strange enough prospect, Singing is narrated by a pirate played by none other than Bud Spencer, star of many an Italian action movie with his partner Terence Hill.

The film’s plot revolves around the widow (Jun Ichikawa — no relation to the director) of an infamous Chinese pirate, “Admiral” Ching (Makoto Kobayashi). When he dies, his wife takes over his ship and battles the government – which is actually fond of pirates in this tale because they keep the economy moving through the process of acquiring “trans-shipped goods.” (A great politician-speak term for stolen booty.)

The widow’s message to her crew of rapscallions is a very modern one — making this an odd feminist revamp of the conventional pirate movie that just happens to be made by an old Italian filmmaker. The widow makes it clear that she will not only not deal with the government (as her husband had started to do), but that all of her sailors are forbidden to mistreat women, of whom there are a number on her ship.

In his most atypical film, Olmi made a very unusual choice — to vary the action on the pirate ship between a patently artificial setting (as a play staged in a seemingly enormous brothel) and on location in a real ship on a real body of water. The latter sequences adhere to Olmi’s neorealist approach, but they don’t work when counterpointed against the sequences that are shot in the artificial setting. 

In the brothel, the film makes a bit more sense and resembles Seijun Suzuki’s later, deliriously artificial Princess Racoon (2005). In the real outdoor setting, the film resembles little more than an Italian approximation of a Shaw Brothers film. Here is a sample (with English subs):

One very interesting thing about Singing: the film features nudity in the artificial sequences. One assumes the farther Olmi moved away from Italy, Catholicism, and neorealism, the more comfortable he was with sexuality.

Here is the trailer for English-speaking audiences:

Olmi's last three films deal with big themes, but return to his strengths: working with non-professional performers, crafting small-in-scope character studies, and editing films down to reasonable running times. The first of the trio, One Hundred Nails (2007), is the most curious, as it begins as a whodunit and quickly becomes a murky parable about the loss of human communication.

The opening scenes offer a good approximation of TV police procedurals, as a crime is discovered — giant nails have been driven into 100 priceless books in a Catholic university library. The crime is so esoteric that one is immediately drawn in, but Olmi solves it in short order by revealing the culprit, a handsome, bearded philosophy professor (Raz Degan) who wants to go back to nature.
Olmi directs Raz Degan.

He abandons his sports car (a philosophy prof with a sports car?), tosses his phone in a river, and gets rid of his i.d. cards. He keeps his laptop and one credit card, which becomes necessary later in the plot. He then begins to rebuild a small hut to live in near the beach area outside of a small town.

He bonds with the townsfolk and becomes their advocate in a battle against a corporation that wants to build on the land they live on. He is summarily found and arrested for the "100 nails" crime. The rest of the film consists of him explaining his crime — he feels that books and received wisdom teach us nothing about life, and that having a cup of coffee and chatting with a friend creates a more profound connection with humanity than studying old, dusty volumes of philosophy and “valuable” knowledge.

Here is the crime (subtitles are not needed):

Bibliophiles will certainly take issue with the main character’s choice of protest, but Olmi clearly had something specific to say, and this dreamy prof (who scores a nice relationship in the small town with a rebellious young woman) serves as his mouthpiece, given the prime placement of his final speeches — which sound both thoroughly reasonable and overly simplistic, in a Unabomber fashion.

Our antihero is likened to Christ by the townspeople, and the film's poetic but curious conclusion (in which the townspeople wait for him to come back, and he never does...) reinforces this comparison. Ultimately it’s a shame that Olmi didn’t work with a coscripter, as there are two very interesting films at war here and the collision produces a major head-scratcher of a drama.

The whole movie can be found here. Here is the trailer for the film (no English subs):

The Cardboard Village (2011) is a tight, moving character study that tackles important issues in a subdued way. An old priest (the always superb Michael Lonsdale) won’t accept that his church is being closed down. As his superiors confront him about the impending closing, he has other visitors – illegal immigrants from Africa — who build a “village” of cardboard boxes in one part of the church. The priest initially rejects the outsiders but then begins to protect them from the authorities.

Here is a scene between Lonsdale and an immigrant boy (no English subs):

Olmi crafts a thoroughly involving work while avoiding the sentimental clichés that would’ve made a Hollywood version of the same scenario nausea-inducing. The non-professionals playing the immigrants are excellent, while Lonsdale is the emotional center of the film as a man who can’t let go of the past — physically (the church) and mentally (his memories of the one girl he clearly loved, long before he became a priest). “Holy Drinker” Rutger Hauer also returns to Olmi’s universe as one of the priests trying to convince Lonsdale’s character to leave the church.

Olmi explores Christian theology again by introducing characters for whom the church is a literal refuge. A discussion that Lonsdale has with one of the immigrants impresses because of its sheer simplicity – Lonsdale asks the most eloquent of the immigrants “Why are you doing all this?” The immigrant answers, “You’re a priest, you should know better than me.” And, of course, the notion that places of worship make a perfect place to store refugees and society’s cast-offs gets right to the root of the concept of Christian charity.

A scene featuring the immigrants (with English subs, in the Closed Captions):

Olmi’s final film, Greenery Will Bloom Again (2014), was a typically modest tale of WWI, based on stories that Olmi’s father had told him about his experiences in that war. It’s a fitting conclusion to a career that went in several directions thematically — a story about young men in in a fatal situation, told by an old artist who heard it from a survivor of “the war to end all wars.”

The film successfully recreates the claustrophobic atmosphere of a bunker occupied by Italian soldiers who are quantified at intervals by their appearance at mail call. Lighter moments – an Italian soldier singing on a hill, applauded and cheered on by Germans soldiers, who can hear him across the trenches — are balanced by moments of war psychosis (soldiers suffering panic attacks in their bunks).

The soldiers are depicted as capable of rebellion, as when one soldier refuses to comply with a command (which he aptly calls a “criminal order”) and desperation, when a soldier shoots himself rather than expose himself to fire from the Germans or being taken prisoner. In the last third of the film, it becomes apparent that the bunker will soon be destroyed, as not only are the Germans bombing them laterally, but they are also digging underneath it to explode its foundations.

Greenery showed Olmi taking on new challenges in filmmaking at the age of 83. He shot the film on 4K video and made sure that it was extremely small in scale. The result was a work of pure cinema that was of a piece with the best of his previous work.

The great humanist went out on a perfect note — an anti-war drama that has both documentary and fantasy elements (the latter occurs when a soldier sees a tree that has turned gold) but is also all about memory. Not a bad place for an immaculately emotional portraitist to conclude his life’s work.

Here’s the Greenery trailer, with no subs (but they’re not really needed for this kind of drama):

At this moment in time it’s hard to find online interviews with Olmi that are subtitled. One that is (for reasons other than film scholarship) is at 10:30 in this video short about how the set of Greenery was part of a protocol by the Edison Company (Olmi’s old employer and a sponsor for the shooting of the film) to be more ecologically chaste:

It was indeed difficult to find any English-subtitled interview clips of Olmi while assembling this piece. I did find this “triple whammy” short interview with Olmi, speaking in Italian, Rutger Hauer, speaking in English, and Michael Lonsdale, who is fluent in English but here chooses to speak in French because he says he “lacks the vocabulary” in English.

The three men are together for a screening of Cardboard Village at the Venice Film Festival in 2011, but the questions they are asked are more generic. Lonsdale says he was happy to work with Olmi because his film united all races. Hauer declares that his jump from action cinema to working for Olmi is a simple one: “You take on another coat, and you dance…”

Michael Lonsdale in The Cardboard Village.
Olmi talks very seriously, as one could expect. He is asked if he would make a film about politics and he says that the current Italian government doesn’t’ “deserve” a film about it. He is also asked who his favorite filmmakers are, and he notes that, if he were forced to watch the best films, he would “see a few minutes of” Rossellini, Fellini, Pasolini (“and that’s only Italian cinema”), and Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, and others (I wish he had kept going with his list).

It’s an interview that finds all three men seated, but it clearly was done on the fly at a film festival and would’ve been amazing if there had been more time for all three to gather their thoughts (and there had some translation done for each of them, since one gets the impression that each gent is not fully aware of what the other is saying).

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