The latest archival assemblage by Milan-based filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi is the final panel in their World War I triptych. Where Prisoners of War (1995) and On the Heights All Is Peace (1998) dealt with the massacre of civilian populations, Oh, Uomo is more viscerally horrifying: The focus is largely on the effects of modern warfare on the human body. The movie’s title is taken from Leonardo da Vinci and so is its premise, namely that images of suffering will promote empathy. “The Face of War,” the most notorious section of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 photography collection War Against War!, documented the hideously blasted, melted, shattered features of World War I’s wounded survivors. A similar gallery of destroyed and reconstructed faces is at the heart of Oh, Uomo.
Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi typically treat each scrap of unearthed footage as though it were a holy relic. The original film is step-printed and slowed down to reveal fleeting expressions and gestures, as well as to emphasize the material nature of the scratched, blotchy, fragile celluloid stuff itself. The preciousness of the preserved footage is underscored by color tinting. But no matter how beautiful the ruddy gold or electric chartreuse, the effect is not exactly distancing. There’s also an intermittent soundtrack, but the movie is almost always a stronger, more awe-inspiring experience without the presence of an editorializing musical counter-irritant.