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One fine filmmaker
The uncertain idealism of Ermanno Olmi
BY CHRIS FUJIWARA

"Films by Ermanno Olmi"
At the Museum of Fine Arts

The MFAís "Films of Ermanno Olmi," featuring superb new prints from Cinecittà Holding, represents a unique opportunity to explore the films of a major artist. Itís also a chance to free a diverse, impassioned, and innovative body of work from the chilling acclaim and the historicizing abstractions to which it was hastily abandoned in the wake of the directorís official masterpiece, Líalbero degli zoccoli/The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978; August 4 at 12:45 p.m.).

Olmi is phenomenologist first, musician second, and storyteller third. In his roaming, nervous, expansive films, narrative is obscured, or elided, or cut off. Key plot points are invisible: in the pivotal scene of Un certo giorno/One Fine Day (1968; August 8 at 6 p.m.), neither we nor the characters notice until itís too late that the advertising-executive hero has just hit a road worker with his car.

The sense of death that haunts most of Olmiís films is linked to a passion for meaning and coherence. In Il posto/The Job (1961; August 1 at 8 p.m. and August 4 at 11 a.m.) and I fidanzati/The Fiancés (1963; August 2 at 6 p.m. and August 3 at 11 a.m.), two films about work, Olmi shows characters who are in danger of losing their lives to work. "We take nothing into account anymore of how we live, how we behave," the hero of Un certo giorno reflects. The filmmaker sets himself the task most of his characters canít even articulate: recuperating the forgotten and neglected parts of their lives.

He trained for this task from 1952 to 1959 by making some 40 short documentaries for Edisonvolta. He later said, "Whatever I try to say in my films derives from and belongs to that world, the world I have personally known: modern industry and the civilization it creates." In 1959, he expanded what was to have been another entry in his industrial series ó a documentary on a hydroelectric dam in the Italian Alps ó into his first feature, Il tempo si è fermato/Time Stood Still (August 1 at 6 p.m.). The film is astonishingly simple: during an interruption in work on the dam, a middle-aged watchman and a young student who has just signed on as a short-term replacement worker share a snowbound cabin. At first the older man is gruff and discourages contact, but eventually the two bond. In Il tempo si è fermato, Olmi establishes some constants of his later films: paid labor as a factor that organizes human activity; the impact of weather and nature on human behavior; the derailing of narrative teleology through distraction and detail; the exploration of the magic of down time.

Il posto, Olmiís second film, is the key to all his work because of the way it illustrates a recurring motif in his critique of modernity: how the "place" or position becomes more important than the people who occupy it. Olmiís sense of detail is evocative: shots are taken as if on the fly, as the young hero (a bumpkin from the outskirts of Milan applying for a job in the big city) surveys his strange environment with clear-eyed reticence.

At this stage in his career, Olmi could be seen as a link from the Italian post-war naturalist traditions of Rossellini and De Sica to the emerging international avant-garde. He has things in common with Cassavetes (cutting that frustrates narrative expectations), Godard (natural lighting, young people, transportation), and Tati (large spaces, the heroís coping by trying to conform). With his third feature film, I fidanzati, he comes up with something quite new. Giovanni, a Milanese worker, signs on, against his fiancéeís wishes, for a year-and-a-half-long project building a petrochemical plant in Sicily. Using the leisurely, unpredictable narrative style perfected in Il posto, Olmi documents Giovanniís arrival in Sicily, the process of getting oriented to his new surroundings, the group activities he participates in guardedly.

The director goes beyond both mere naturalism and the naturalism of consciousness that was the great discovery of neo-realism: he introduces short flashbacks and, increasingly, fantasy scenes and scenes whose temporal or ontological status is unclear. These unanchored shots become more expressive, a flood of remembered or fantasized images triggered by the loversí letters to each other; meanwhile the present-time narrative consists mainly of down time, waiting, idle amusements. Olmiís use of sound, already remarkable in his first two features, reaches a peak of complexity in I fidanzati with its deft layering of off-screen industrial or ambient sounds and music in conjunction with images that wander and open into larger spheres. (Fifteen years later, a similar use of sound will account for much of the richness of Líalbero degli zoccoli.)

The remarkable quartet of features Olmi made for Italian TV between 1968 and 1973 is ripe for rediscovery. In Un certo giorno, the first of the four, cutting and shooting are offhand but urgent; this is not naturalism but a furious impressionism. Sequences are dreamily cut short, then get taken up in flashback fragments; gradually, the nodal points of this seemingly casual, unmomentous film crystallize around the crucial car accident (itself filmed in a blindingly elliptical manner).

I recuperanti/The Scavengers (1969; August 9 at 6 p.m.) and Durante líestate/During the Summer (1971; August 3 at 2:15 p.m.) are relatively straightforward but fresh and unpredictable expositions of some of Olmiís key themes. The first, evoking Il tempo si è fermato, pairs an old man and a young man who try to make a living by salvaging bombs and other war materials buried in the Brescian hills. In the second, a former high-school professor with a passion for heraldry convinces various strangers that they have noble blood.

La circostanza/The Circumstance (1973; August 10 at noon) pushes to an extreme the fragmentation of I fidanzati and Un certo giorno. The film examines several members of a well-to-do family during a summer of crisis for each: teenage Silvia is tempted to lose her virginity; her brother is in rebellion against his parents; their older brotherís wife is about to give birth; the head of the family takes part in a business simulation that, though presented as an educational game, reminds him and his fellow office workers that their futures are uncertain; and his wife, after arriving at the scene of an accident in which a teenage boy has been badly burned, finds a new, private purpose in life as she makes repeated visits to the boyís hospital room. The film has extraordinary fluidity: as Olmiís short flashbacks overlap, it becomes difficult to tell whose subjectivity, if anyoneís, is organizing the narrative. Toward the end, it becomes almost too explicit in its willful inconclusiveness and its mysticism, but itís exciting to watch.

In La circostanza especially, but also in his other films, Olmiís jagged editing patterns create the sense that the characters are living not in the present moment but in a whirl of pasts, futures, and fantasies. His characters, mirroring us, hope and expect to emerge intact at the other end of this everyday chaos. But in I fidanzati, who knows what will happen after Giovanniís one and a half years in Sicily? And will the father in La circostanza come to work tomorrow to find his desk cleared?

In the elegiac re-creation of the lives of Lombardy peasants in Líalbero degli zoccoli, Olmi offers a corrective to the anxiety of his contemporary-set films. Several stories emerge out of the details of the peasantsí work and communal life: the courtship and marriage of a modest young couple; a father cutting down his landlordís tree to make shoes for his son to wear on his walk to school; an old man fertilizing tomatoes with chicken manure so theyíll ripen quicker. The soft lighting, evidently almost entirely from "natural" sources, and, above all, the discrete, precise soundtrack give us the sense of assisting at an almost unmediated reality. The shortness of shots is a directorial statement; by not letting us become involved in any one activity or point of view, it allows the film to develop the feeling of a life tapestry.

If the cumulative emotional effect of Líalbero degli zoccoli is close to that of I fidanzati, it shows how useless words like "humanism" are in trying to account for it. The final section of I fidanzati is astounding; I can compare it to nothing else in cinema in my experience. At a certain point, almost nothing matters but the fate of the couple (just as in Antonioniís films of the early í60s, which are rarely called "humanistic"), and here Olmi leaves us, and them, suspended among possibilities. But whatís equally important is the rebirth of a conscience: as his fiancée says in her letter, she and Giovanni were together from habit, but now their separation forces them to understand things better. The combination of deep uncertainty and fervent idealism is extremely moving. This is also what we are left with after the more outwardly pessimistic ending of Líalbero degli zoccoli, and it may be what, above all, stamps Olmiís work with its poignancy and urgency.

Issue Date: August 1 - 8, 2002
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