Ermanno Olmi, perhaps the most unassuming of the great Italian filmmakers of the twentieth century, has passed away at the age of eighty-six. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and the Golden Lion at Venice for The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), he was notable among his compatriots for the regional focus of his films, many of which are situated in or near his hometown of Bergamo in the northern region of Lombardy. But while Olmi’s affinity for this specific location set him apart, he shared certain aesthetic and thematic preoccupations with other major Italian auteurs. As P. Adams Sitney notes in a piece for Film Reference, “like Pasolini, Rosi, and Bertolucci, Olmi is a filmmaker nurtured by postwar neorealism. Like his great precursors, Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti, he has worked extensively with amateur actors, chosen simplified naturalistic settings, eschewed elaborate artifices or lighting, and employed an ascetic camera style.”
Profiling Olmi for Film Comment in 2001, Deborah Young drew a portrait of a man who kept himself “deliberately outside the ebb and flow of Italian film culture,” noting that he began “rare interviews with the disclaimer: ‘Cinema is not my life. Living is.’” Young argued that it’d be “as impossible to look at Olmi’s films without taking his Christianity into account as it would be to rub religion from the work of Krzysztof Zanussi, his Polish contemporary and friend . . . There is nothing mystical about his brand of callus-handed Christianity, with its love for all creatures great and small and particularly man in all his defects.”
Olmi began his career in the early 1950s, making documentaries for the electric company Edison Volta. His first feature, Time Stood Still (1958), “is a wonderful film,” wrote Kent Jones for Criterion in 2003, “but it was the one-two punch of his second and third films that put him on the international movie scene map . . . Think of them as two estuaries growing out of the same river. Il Posto  flows north to Milan, and I fidanzati  south and across the channel to Sicily. The first deals with a young man’s entry into the deadening, overly regimented, oppressive world of the white-collar work force, with the romantic prospect of a charming fellow worker named Antonietta offering a measure of hope.” I fidanzati “is about a skilled blue-collar worker during a long and lonesome company displacement down south.”
These two films are old favorites for Oscar-nominated writer-director Mike Mills, who talked with Criterion in 2016 about their influence on his work.
The release of a new restoration of The Tree of Wooden Clogs in February 2017 occasioned a fresh round of reviews, and you’ll find a handpicked selection at Critics Round Up. Myself, I remember the film hitting repertory theaters in the States at more or less the same time as Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, made two years before in 1976—an open invitation for comparisons and contrasts. While Tree pretty much sticks to a tenant farm near Bergamo in 1898, 1900 begins on a farm in the neighboring region of Emilia-Romagna before barreling forward into the new century all the way to World War II over the span of its original 317-minute running time. Clayton Dillard over at Slant draws a comparison between the two films in his review of Tree, examining the tension between Marxist politics and Christian humanism that runs through Olmi’s work.
In this clip from a supplement on Criterion’s edition of Tree, Olmi revisits the small town where the film was shot.
The last two decades of Olmi’s life and career were relatively quiet. 2001 saw the release of The Profession of Arms, which, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes at the A.V. Club, “deals with the nitty-gritty of post-medieval warfare . . . with the sort of mesmeric procedural rigor usually identified with Roberto Rossellini’s late-period history films.” In 2005, Olmi contributed a short film to the omnibus triptych Tickets; the other two filmmakers were none other than Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach. The Cardboard Village (2011), starring Michael Lonsdale and Rutger Hauer, roused little critical interest after screening in Venice and Toronto, and Greenery Will Bloom Again (2014), set during the First World War, racked up eight nominations for Italy’s David di Donatello Awards, but garnered little recognition elsewhere. Olmi’s final project, codirected with Giacomo Gatti, would be last year’s Vedete, sono uno di voi, a documentary portrait of Carlo Maria Martini, Archbishop of Milan, from 1980 to 2002.
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.