And so it would be for the next few decades: man as a tiny, poor creature at the foot of god and capitalism. In One Fine Day (1968) a rich man kills someone with his car; in The Scavengers (1969) two men hunt for pieces of shells and bullets left behind from WWII to sell for scrap; in The Profession of Arms (2001) Giovanni de Medici’s army is thwarted in their defense of Rome from an invading German force when Medici himself is shot in the leg by one of the first small, quick-loading cannons. In his final and quite possibly best fiction feature Greenery Will Bloom Again (2014), the commander of a battalion dug into a mountain during WWI shoots himself in the head in front of his superior officers rather than lead his men to death.
Olmi was unafraid of showing a world without God, where his absence drives men to despair and murder. How else to explain the corpses and bullets littering the hills of his homeland, now useful only as much as they might be turned into machine parts? Greenery and Profession are both poetic and imposing, almost too big behind their calm, cool black, blue, grey color schemes.
His most overwhelmingly earnest film and so beautiful it’s almost preposterous is the Christ fable The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), where Rutger Hauer (evincing the same broken glory as Steiger in A Man Named John) is gifted $200 by a stranger and gets a second chance at life. It’s difficult not to see something of Olmi in both homeless protagonist and his benefactor. Even if he could do it all again, he wouldn’t. He loved people and living among them, telling their story, looking deep into their eyes with his open, loving camera.
Ermanno Olmi’s religious films are very little known and seldom screened, and indeed it can be difficult to quite get a read on their grammatical ideas. Keep Walking (1983) is a three-hour pilgrimage toward the birth of Christ, as a man gathers followers as he marches toward a star he takes for a sign from God. It’s an exhausting film with the party growing and shrinking with every obstacle, only faith to carry them forward.
His 1994 Genesis: The Creation and the Flood is an impressionistic rendering of the eponymous Bible stories told with historically accurate middle eastern characters, fleet montage, and narration taking the place of most dialogue. It’s written in a language Terrence Malick is still speaking, trying to conjure some sliver of the majesty of life and the enormity of history through what is real and small and understandable. Malick’s Voyage in Time plays like a response to Olmi’s religious work and both were modernists working in an unpopular idiom.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs, the Italian’s agreed-upon ‘masterpiece’ is Malickian in its unemphatic narrative approach, no event more important than the next. It still beguiles and stuns 40 years later, looking and feeling completely outside of time in its naturalist aesthetic and un-ebbing humanity. It follows an entire community, four sprawling families, living on a wealthy landowner’s patch in Ermanno Olmi’s hometown of Bergamo just before the start of the 20th century. Revolution passes them by and they are punished by the landlord when the enormity of their care for each other eclipses their means. The TV series Deadwood (2003-2005) is one of the few works of art since to duplicate its success in treating an entire community as a protagonist. People were both his paint and his canvas, and he loved them.
Olmi’s methods and passions changed frequently as he aged and the works frequently bear little apparent resemblance to each other the connective tissue is easily felt. One Hundred Nails (2007) is the story of a college professor who forsakes academia for life in a hovel by the river Po, near which Medici was fatally wounded. The snow-covered mountains of Time Stands Still remain to both guard and trap the regiment in Greenery Will Bloom Again.
In both Genesis and Singing Behind Screens, in which brothel-bound dramaturg Bud Spencer (in the role of a lifetime) narrates the story of the first pirate queen in China, an effort is made to restore the historical glory of groups of people written out of history. When God’s wrath threatens the people in Genesis, it comes not in the form of effects shots, but in borrowed footage of the destruction of Iraq in the Gulf War. Ermanno Olmi saw through people, saw through the language of war-mongers, the lies of politicians, the hideous moneyed vulgarity that so casually demanded we let people hang.
The thing that makes Olmi’s movies so compelling, even bizarre experiments like the maligned environmental storybook The Secret of the Old Woods, is the grace with which he reminds us of the simplicity of empathy. It takes nothing, he reminds us, to be our best self. In the midst of the baroque antics of Long Live The Lady, the young hero’s father comes from their village to do very little narratively but remind the young man not to be seduced by the wealth on display. It’s a beautiful tangent and it makes the rest of the film work by contrasting the zaniness with the quiet grace of a father hugging his son, reminding him of the grandmother who filled his head with the language of fables.
Over the course of his career, Ermanno Olmi’s aesthetic strategies changed, but his sageness never diminished, and he never talked down to us. Given facts, given the face of human beings demonized in media, we could find true north. The world plunged into darkness many times in his lifetime, but Olmi and his transgressively kind cinema remained a guiding light.