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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.