June 14-26, 2019
Italian director Ermanno Olmi
A masterly artist who specialized in dramatizing undramatic lives, Italian director Ermanno Olmi—who died last year at age 86—made psychologically acute character studies that are as close as fictional films have come to showing real life in all its complexity and ordinariness. The director himself said it all: “The cinema is life and life is the cinema for me.”
Film at Lincoln Center’s current retrospective—some of his films, rarely seen in this country, are being shown in 35mm prints courtesy of the Instituto Luce Cinecitta in Italy—should, I hope, bring about a reappraisal of the extraordinary work Olmi created, even after his critical and commercial peak, 1978’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, after which the director almost completely disappeared from our screens.
Born in 1931 in Bergamo, in northern Italy’s Lombardy region northeast of Milan, Olmi began making short films in the early 1950s for Milanese electric company Edisonvolta. In 1958 the company commissioned him to make a short about a hydroelectric dam in the mountains; he instead returned with his first feature, 1958’s Time Stood Still, whose protagonists are embodied with simple authenticity by the first of many amateurs Olmi used to enact fictional events similar to those in their own lives.
Olmi's 1961 classic Il Posto, starring his wife Loredana Detto
Olmi’s imposing body of work is highlighted by his early masterpieces Il Posto (1961) and The Fiancés (1963), both of which follow quotidian existence with an eloquence that speaks directly to the heart. Olmi entirely avoided artifice and affectation in his films, preferring to concentrate on the intense emotions of his characters as they attempt to maintain their dignity in their struggles to survive. That even goes for the capitalist at the center of the 1968 classic One Fine Day, who finds his world forever altered after a pair of events threaten to boost him professionally and ruin him personally. Olmi’s gracious and sympathetic study is punctuated by his visually arresting snapshots into the troubled man’s mind.
Then there are the Catholic director’s more overtly religious films, like A Man Named John (1965), a singular biopic about Pope John XXIII; Cammina, Cammina (Walking, Walking, 1983), a recreation of the story of the Magi; and Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994), a visualization of events in the first book of the Bible. These transcend their narrow structures to become triumphant paeans to the goodness of man and his co-existence with nature, artfully displayed by Olmi’s earthy imagery.
Olmi's 2001 study of warfare, The Profession of Arms
Two of Olmi’s greatest late-period films consider the insanity of war. The Profession of Arms (2001), a biography of the 16th century military man Giovanni de’ Medici, was photographed in a procession of indelible images by Olmi’s son, Fabio Olmi. Olmi’s final film., 2014’s Greenery Will Bloom Again, is a spare, humane meditation on warfare, embodied in shivering soldiers caught up in the machinery that made World War I such a protracted and horrific bloodbath.
In Olmi’s films, it’s the precisely etched faces—expressive, inscrutable and hauntingly human—that viewers will remember. There is the young man in Il Posto, visibly heartsick when the girl he adores is among a new crowd; the lovers in The Fiancés realizing their bond can remain strong, even while separated; and the alcoholic hero of the elegant, dream-like fable The Legend of the Holy Drinker, at last finding spiritual redemption (a role wonderfully played by Rutger Hauer in a rare instance of Olmi casting a name actor).
A poet of the commonplace, Ermanno Olmi—as this retrospective makes clear—made films that are anything but.
Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY