Saturday 25 July 2015

On DVD (9) - Two recent films by the Italian master Ermanno Olmi

Olmi in the 60s
Ermanno Olmi began making feature films in 1958 at the age of 27. As of now he has made sixteen dramatic feature length films including two that won the top European festival awards first at Cannes (The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978)  and then Venice (The Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1988). Back in the early 80s, The Tree of Wooden Clogs was a major art house hit. It ran for months at Melbourne's Longford Cinema back in the days when a film like that would have distribution limited to just a couple of prints and the art houses around the country got in a queue. I dont think his Venice prize winner had many, if any screenings here. I saw it in an out of the way repertory cinema in Paris years after it had been released. I'm not aware of any local sightings of his films since The Profession of Arms (2007) which I think was screened in that year's Italian Film Festival. I may be wrong about that too. I saw it first on World Movies and it played on SBS.

All of which is to say that Olmi was rarely a fashionable film maker. For a straightfoward explanation as to why  may I refer you to a piece written a decade and half ago by Deborah Young and published in Film Comment This and a set of notes for a season of Olmi's films at the University of California was all I could find in English from a quick Google search. In brief, he has a conservative Catholic view that puts him, and the subjects he chooses to film, frequently at odds with the prevailing Italian and world tastes.

I'm relying on more memory to get to this point. My memory says that Olmi announced he was giving up making dramatic feature films and proposed that any future work would be confined to documentaries. This occurred after One Hundred Nails (Italy, 2009) another of his films with a Christ-like figure at its centre. It was thus a surprise to come across two recent features out on Italian DVD. (A day spent hunting through the racks of Italian cinema in the back room of Florence's wonderful Alberti Dischi store on Borgo San Lorenzo always produces treasure

Olmi in 2011
So what have we here. Il Villaggio di Cartone premiered out of competition at Venice in 2011. If there was any fuss about it, it passed me by. Produced by RAI Cinema the impetus for the film would appear to have come from the UN High Commission for Refugees. They couldn't have found a more sympathetic director to fashion a work which picks apart the issues facing Italy today as it tries to deal with a continuing influx of African refugees. 

The film opens with a priest (Michael Lonsdale) facing the closure and deconsecration of his church. A team of workers in fluoro vests march in like a conquering army behind a set of lights which hide the fact that this is a giant set. (The 'Making Of' extra shows the construction of all this in detail.). The action takes place entirely within the church. That night a group of a dozen or more Africans, some refugees, some locals assisting them, invade the property and set up a tent city inside the nave. This is the cardboard village of the title. They are a mixed bunch with mixed ambitions and the priest is forced to deal with their demands as well as those of the authorities who want to as they say, enforce the law. One of the refugees is carrying explosives and harbours ambitions to be a suicide bomber. 

Olmi's mise-en-scene privileges nobody. Neither the priest nor the refugees are shown in any saintly manner and the drama which works its way out over a very short time contains all the wild contradictions that accompany any consideration of refugees anywhere. But its low key by any standards and notwithstanding the presence of Londsdale and Rutger Hauer as an official of the church tasked with carrying on its business with ruthless efficiency it has no obvious selling points that might have got it front and centre at any of the festivals. 

Three years later, at the age of 84 Olmi's latest film Torneranno I prati (translated on the subtitles as Greenery Will Bloom Again). Made in 2014 it premiered at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival and has yet to be selected for any local event. Maybe the Italian Film Festival starting in September might pick it up. We'll see. Set in the first world war the story concerns an Italian outpost high in the mountains between Italy and Austria. Near to buried underground a small group of Italian soldiers is battling to halt Austrian aggression. Lonely, sick and depressed the soldiers have lost the heart for battle and their situation is complicated by an apparent breach in their security. Alternate plans are hatched, all of them seemingly doomed. The talk is of honour and duty and there are some ghastly and abrupt moments down in the bunker. 

Olmi films all this by reducing most of the colour to black and white. There are spectacular images as well in the few exteriors. The film takes 71 minutes to get through the drama which includes a newsreel coda. 

The great discovery on the disc is a 50+ minute 'Making Of' which I dare to say is the best such example of this little byway of the modern cinema that I have ever seen. We see Olmi's working methods, the actual construction of the set which takes place in autumn so that it is ready to be snowed under for winter. The craft of the Italian on-set constructors is shown to be remarkable. Olmi explains the themes he is addressing (abdication to military rules, learning and hallucination) and gives the view that despite the realism of the location he is wishing to be evocative. As part of his mise-en-scene, Olmi is given to prepare quick little drawings on a notepad as to what he wants to be in the scene. These are all-encompassing and look to show camera positions, the movement of the actors and more. The filming which takes place in the depths of a mountain winter is rugged as well. Olmi, who seems jittery on his feet, has to be physically assisted around the location.His voice is now reduced a raspy little whisper and most of his directing takes place in a tiny confined space in which he watches the action on a small screen. The Making Of  is directed by Fabrizio Cattani.

With the possible single exception of The Legend of the Holy Drinker Olmi's ambitions have always been tempered, his filming done without flourish. His Catholic conservatism, amply set out in the aforementioned Deborah Young piece, always a key thematic behind his subjects. These two DVDs, both with excellent English subtitles, are a reminder of a career that deserves to be called that of a master.

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