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Ermanno Olmi

     Has there been an English-language interview with the reclusive Italian cineaste, Ermanno Olmi, now 73? Olmi’s distinguished feature-making goes back to 1959, when he helped kick off an Italian "New Wave." But I don’t know that he’s been ever to America to promote his cinema. A shy man who resists publicity, he’s opted to work and live quietly in Northern Italy, avoiding the happening cine city of Rome.

     Do you need a handle on one of the unrecognized masters? Olmi’s 1978 epic of peasant revolt, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, has just come out on DVD. If you missed the MFA’s 2002 Olmi retrospective, do catch Il Posto/The Sound of Trumpets (1961) and I fidanzati/ The Fiances (1963), an extraordinary 35mm double feature July 26-27 at the Harvard Film Archive. They’re slotted --O for Olmi-- in this year’s July-August A to Z series from the HFA vault, superbly curated by Film Programmer, Ted Barron.

     Fellini the obvious exception, prominent Italian filmmakers are inevitably Marxists, also invariably--Visconti, Antonioni, Pontecorvo, Bertolucci, Bellochio, etc.— from prosperous backgrounds. Olmi is actually from a poor peasant family, which emigrated from Bergamo, in the Lombardy region, to find better-paying work in the environs of Milan. Olmi was employed in the 1950s as a clerk in an Edison-Volta electric plant, and then for more years as their in-house documentarian. It was from his work experiences that Olmi forged the very autobiographical films above, whose male protagonists are, as Olmi had been, Milanese cogs in enervating low-level jobs.

     Olmi’s ouvre offers a link between DeSica’s The Bicycle Thief and The Graduate, Rossellini’s Rome: Open City and the Czech New Wave of Loves of a Blonde. He shoots utilizing non-actors, natural lighting, and real locales. His characters aren’t desperately impoverished, like those of the earlier Italian Neorealists. Instead, they’re the "little people" with low-paying office employ, whose only chance out, a second-rate college degree, is after decades of night school. You know them: apolitical, anonymous, more resigned than angry. If only they could get health insurance.

     Olmi: "Work is not a damnation for man. It’s a chance to express himself. But work as it is organized by society often becomes a condemnation. It annuls men." Although Olmi is always sympathetic to his working-persons ensemble, he recognizes their complicity in their lives of quiet estrangement. Olmi may be a Marxist, but his protagonists are anything but revolutionaries. In ever-on-strike Europe, they’re not even talking union. Instead, they are oddly grateful for being picked over pools of other applicants.

     Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in the 1967 The Graduate is definitely prefigured in Sandro Panseri’s bug-eyed, blank-faced, lost-soul Domenico, who has dropped out of school in the lumpen suburbs and comes into Milan by train seeking a job. There’s no swimming pool, no Mrs. Robinson, but underclass Domenico is as confused by life’s fortunes as college-grad Benjy. For a time, he finds a Benjamin-like diversion, a cute-as-Katharine Ross’s Elaine young lady (Loredano Detto), also applying for work. But finally it’s all about the job, and Domenico chains himself to a workplace clogged with cadaverous employees gasping for retirement. "Hello, darkness, my old friend."

     The Fiances also begins in Milan, with a long-engaged couple, Giovanni (Carlo Cabrini) and Liliana (Anna Canzi), out on the town at a dance club. The evening is tense, because Giovanni, seeking better wages, has accepted a hardhat job in Sicily, which takes him away for sixteen months. Olmi transports us to a godawful chemical helltown in Southern Italy, where, as did Domenico in Il Posto, Giovanni struggles to remain stoical, harnessed to his dreadful work. The film’s most famous sequence: our couple in a swirl of high-temperature love letters, as melodrama makes the heart grow fonder. And then (you will recognize this one), a clumsy follow-up phone call, in which (recall Benjamin and Elaine comatose on the bus) there’s nothing to say.

(Boston Phoenix - August, 2004)


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