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).

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!