No other Italian film-maker of world stature has been as neglected as Ermanno Olmi, possibly because his quiet mastery is unfashionable but also because a serious illness has limited him in recent years. The last time he came into prominence was in 1978 when he won the Palme D’Or at Cannes with The Tree of Wooden Clogs.
Many think this three-hour epic about the lives of peasants in turn-of-the-century Bergamo is his masterwork. It may be, but other classics include Il Posto (The Job), Un Certo Giorno (One Fine Day) and La Circonstanza (The Circumstance). His films may not have the virtuosity of Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini and Bertolucci. But time will prove that they are of equal value.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs was taken from stories Olmi’s grandmother told him. Using peasants from the area as actors, it was made with direct sound (very unusual in Italy). It was even spoken not in Italian but in Bergomesque. The film attempted not only an attack on an outmoded social system – the peasants have to beg land and the wherewithal for a basic education from the local landlord – but an almost mystical affirmation of the relationship of man to nature.
Olmi was a Catholic as well as a Marxist so the film isn’t as angry, and is far more beautiful, than that other masterpiece of the same genre from Latin America, Nelson Pereira Dos Santos’s Barren Lives.
Its strength lies not just in its ravishing depiction of the changing seasons in a stunning part of Lombardy nor in its human sympathies, which are never patronising to the ordinary people he finds so unordinary, but in its measured, cumulative approach to the hard life of those close to penury and exploited by the powerful. For instance, the tree of the title is cut down by a father to make a pair of clogs for his son to reach school. For which he pays a terrible price.
There are several other stunning sequences, such as when a secretive old man finally tells his granddaughter how he has managed to grow his tomato crop so early each year that he can be the first to sell in the market. Even better is the honeymoon trip on an old barge to Milan. This is a documentary that isn’t a documentary, perhaps a trifle nostalgic for times past but never averse to pointing out the viciousness of the old system and the bleak fight that has to be fought against the natural world.
Olmi’s other films are very different, though inhabiting the same humanist space. The Job has a young man triumphantly finding a clerking job but thereby condemned to drudgery for the rest of his life. One Fine Day is about a middle-aged businessman who causes an accident in which a farmworker dies, which forces him to re-examine his whole empty life. “Work,” said Olmi, “is not a damnation for man. It is his chance to express himself. But work as it is organised by society often becomes a condemnation. It annuls man. We are conditioned, but we are also guilty of letting it happen.”
His precise and tactful films never over-dramatise. They seem to exist naturally, setting his characters against an equally authentic background so that you forget the skill with which they are made. It is good to know that many of the best of present day Italian film-makers regard his work as a model.