Among the second generation of postwar Italian filmmakers who came to prominence during the ’60s, none has proven more idiosyncratic than Ermanno Olmi. One of his country’s rare directors of working-class (originally peasant) origin, Olmi is an unrepentant Catholic, which has earned him a bit of antipathy from Italy’s leftist intellectual establishment. For much of his career, he has kept his distance from the Roman film scene, remaining secluded in his native Lombardy and sticking to low-budget projects. His best works have been fashioned in a restrained and elliptical mode that’s far from typically Italian; despite his bent for real settings and non-actors, he’s not easily pigeonholed as a neorealist. His dogged, almost mystical affection for unglamorous characters is often in marked contrast to a penchant for abstraction — he’s closer to Antonioni and Bresson than to De Sica and Rossellini.
Olmi landed his first job at the Edison Electric Company and began his movie career there as a maker of in-house docs; Time Stood Still (1958), his final film for Edison, was his first feature. His superb first two independent films — The Job (1961), released here as The Sound of Trumpets, and The Fiancés (1962), made during the great economic boom when Italy was rapidly evolving from a rural to an industrial society — are nearly plotless, both built on the unfolding of a simple theme. The first film, a wryly serious comedy, concerns an ordinary young man’s entry into the workforce in an alienating job; in the second, Olmi seamlessly mixes past and present in a tender study of a Milanese couple who drift apart when the man is sent to work in Sicily. In The Job‘s most striking sequence, Domenico, the teen protag, attends a memorably dreary New Year’s office party — and here Olmi achieves that most difficult of feats: conveying boredom without actually being boring. Both films benefit from exemplary black-and-white cinematography by Lamberto Caimi.
Olmi’s first film with an international star, And There Came a Man (1965) (a hagiography of Pope John XXIII with Rod Steiger), did little to enhance his rep. After a relatively fallow period, Olmi returned to form with the most ambitious work of his career, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978). Olmi wrote, directed, shot, and edited this rural epic set in Lombardy at the close of the 19th century. It represents a return to his roots — the script is based on stories Olmi heard as a boy, told to him by his peasant grandmother. The austerity of his early films is gone here, replaced by a richly detailed Brueghelian description of the lives of several devout and resilient sharecropper families who live communally on one landlord’s estate. Winner of the Golden Palm at Cannes, it was promptly declared a masterpiece in many quarters. But while intermittently powerful, at over three hours, it’s often a long, hard haul. (Olmi has vehemently denied reports that his film was made as a Catholic answer to Bertolucci’s Marxist 1900.)
Long Live the Lady! (1987), an offbeat satirical comedy, and The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), a Parisian parable adapted from a Joseph Roth novella, are both moderately interesting, but don’t go down very deep. Sad to say, the director’s latest work on view, Genesis — The Creation and the Flood (1994), his Morocco-shot contribution to an ongoing Turner series of biblical films, is an insipid Old Testament narrative. Its imagery is National Geographic lite; the ponderous score was composed by Ennio Morricone. However his recent work is estimated, Olmi’s magical, quiet, and understated early films will earn him a firm place in European cinema.
“Salt of the Earth: The Cinema of Ermanno Olmi” at the Walter Reade