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Ermanno Olmi RIP

Ermanno Olmi, one of the last film directors of the golden age of Italian cinema, has died at the age of 86.

Olmi was considered the last author of neorealism for his attention on the lives of poor people and the use of non-professional actors. He was defined the prophetic poet of humble and weak people, the voice of marginalised existences. His greatest success was in 1978 The Tree of Wooden Clogs which won the top award at Cannes. The film was acclaimed as the last great work of Italian neo-realism.

The movie tells the story of four poor peasant families in northern Italy’s rural Lombardy, where Olmi grew up at the end of the 19th century. It was shot and edited by Olmi himself with a handheld 35mm camera. The actors were not professionals but just people who lived in the area. 

Olmi was born in Bergamo but he spent his childhood between the working class of the Milanese suburbs and the countryside, in Treviglio. Olmi kept notebooks recording the tales his grandmother told him about her early life as a peasant, which provided the material for The Tree of Wooden Clogs. His homeland northern regions are the setting for many of his films. Son of factory workers he worked in the energy company Edison-Volta when he was only 16. He had to give up his studies and his dream of becoming an architect. Olmi discovered neorealist cinema after seeing Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (1946). His first work was a film unit made up of 30 documentaries on power plants, commissioned by his employer who had been impressed by his 16mm shorts on that same subject. Olmi was later commissioned to make a longer film about a dam under construction. The result was his first commercial enterprise Il Tempo Si È Fermato (Time Stood Still, 1959), followed by the self-produced 1961 drama “Il Posto” (“The Job”), which was a film about two young men looking for their first job in Milan. The film was acted by non-professionals, including Olmi’s future wife, Loredana Detto, and it won an award at the Venice film festival.

The world of work continued to be an important theme in Olmi’s production. Un Certo Giorno (One Fine Day, 1968) talks about the world of work, but from the perspective of those exerting power. The following film, I Recuperanti (The Scavengers, 1970) photographed and edited by Olmi himself was inspired by the stories of residents of Asiago who, in order to earn some cash during the hard times of the second world war, had dug up scrap metal in that mountainous area.  

In the 1970s, he continued to make TV films for the public broadcaster RAI. In 1987 he made Lunga Vita alla Signora! (Long Live the Lady!) which won three prizes at the Venice film festival.

In 1988, Olmi won the Venice Golden Lion for his The Legend of the Holy Drinker, based on the 1939 novella by the Austrian writer Joseph Roth which tells the story of an alcohol addict, who is given some money to redeem himself upon the condition one day he’ll return it to the church. He fails his promise because he spends all of his money on alcohol. Il Segreto del Bosco Vecchio (The Secret of the Old Woods, 1993) followed, based on a 1930s novella by Dino Buzzati. 

His most religious film was Il Mestiere delle Armi (The Profession of Arms, 2001), set during the 16th-century wars between the soldiers of the emperor Charles V and the papal armies. His next film was Cantando Dietro i Paraventi (Singing Behind Screens, 2003) set among the pirates of late 18th-century China. In 2005 he contributed to the omnibus film Tickets.

Many of Olmi’s most loyal admirers were dismayed by Centochiodi (One Hundred Nails, 2007) where he suggested that only a return to the belief in archaic values can save the world.

In 2008, Olmi was given a lifetime achievement Honorary Golden Lion at the 2008 Venice film festival. Villaggio di Cartone (The Cardboard Village, 2011); Torneranno i Prati (The Fields Will Come Back, 2014); and Vedete, Sono Uno di Voi (Look, I’m One of You, 2017) were his last films.  

Giulia Lombardo

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