Obituary: Ermanno Olmi
Director whose films, exploring the lives of peasants and workers, were underpinned by his Catholic faith
Ermanno Olmi, who has died aged 86, almost single-handedly revived the realist tradition of Italian cinema in the 1960s.
Of humble stock, he was associated closely with the peasants and the proletariat of his native Lombardy and made several films about the lives of ordinary men and women, though his later work was more allegorical. He was the filmmaker par excellence of the workplace. While he depicted the monotony of dead-end jobs, he regarded work as man's "chance to express himself, the average person's opportunity to be creative".
Such remarks did not endear him to Leftists, who considered his characters too passive and his films flawed by political complacency and resignation.
They judged this a by-product of his Catholicism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Olmi retained his faith, which underpinned his films. Many, not least I Fidanzati (The Engagement, 1963), consciously echoed the attitudes of the 19th Century Catholic novelist Alessandro Manzoni.
Olmi was a self-effacing stylist. He shot and edited most of his films himself, eschewing flashy photographic effects and concentrating on the beauty and simplicity of everyday life. His mentor was Vittorio De Sica, one of the founders of the so-called neo-realist movement, whose films Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D created the mould which Olmi sought to fill.
Olmi's Catholicism, though always implicit in his work, surfaced in his fourth film, made in 1965. Known internationally as A Man Named John, it was Olmi's personal tribute to Pope John XXIII, who hailed, like himself, from Lombardy. Neither a documentary nor a drama, it had elements of both, with Rod Steiger miscast as the Pope and, in an Everyman role, as commentator. A commercial and critical failure, it embarrassed even Olmi's staunchest supporters. Years later, he conceded that he had been too close to the subject.
It cut short his rapidly growing reputation. Though he remained active, all his work between 1965 and 1978 was for Italian television. The films were seen at international festivals, but few were taken up for cinema release.
Outside Italy, he became a forgotten man until he bounced back in 1978 with his masterpiece The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a three-hour survey of peasant life at the turn of the century, which won Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Olmi suffered a severe stroke in 1983 and was in poor health for the rest of his life, though he managed to complete many more films. Most of them were more ambitious than his previous works (he tackled The Creation and the Flood, for example, in his 1994 work Genesis). But commentators regretted the absence of the common-or-garden touch that had informed his earlier films.
The young Ermanno studied at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Milan and gained early experience as an actor and director in amateur productions at the Palazzo Litta.
He dropped out of formal studies at the age of 18 and joined his mother as a clerk at the Edison-Volta electric plant in 1949. Continuing to act in amateur theatricals and to dabble in film-making as a hobby, he impressed his employers sufficiently to be put in charge of their new film department. Between 1952 and 1959 he made 40 documentary shorts on 16 mm film about aspects of the company's activities.
One of these, shot in 1959, expanded during production to become Olmi's first feature film, Time Stood Still, in which he used non-professional actors, one of whom worked for Edison. It was about the building of a hydroelectric dam in the Italian Alps, focusing on two men, a watchman and his student helper, who spend the winter in the mountains guarding the unfinished dam. Encouraged by the success of this film, Olmi left Edison-Volta and, with fellow cineastes, set up a film-making cooperative called the 24 Horses. It produced his second film, Il posto (1961), for under $15,000. Semi-autobiographical, it was the simple story of a young boy applying for his first job - with a conglomerate. It concentrated on everyday life and, like the best work of De Sica, achieved a kind of poetry through truth.
The office block in which the film was shot was the Edison building where Olmi himself had worked; the young lad in the leading role had been employed in a similar capacity, while the secretary with whom he falls in love was played by Loredana Detto, later to become Olmi's wife.
His third film, I fidanzati (1963), was made by another cooperative, the December 22 Group. It was a considerable advance on Il posto. Much of the film is told in voice-over, while the camera cuts from then to now, from here to there, avoiding such cinematic cliches as fades and dissolves.
It took Olmi more than a decade to recover from the disaster of A Man Named John (1965). He carried on working, but Italian Leftists rejected his 1968 effort, One Fine Day, because it was about a white-collar worker rather than a representative of the proletariat. So he was driven back to television, for which he made The Scavengers (1970), about rag-and-bone men, During Summer (1971), a whimsical piece about an eccentric who "ennobles" those he thinks deserve it, and The Circumstance (1973), a study of the impact of redundancy on middle-aged executives. They were all excellent works, but little seen abroad. Then, after five years, Olmi re-established himself with The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). A panorama of peasant life in and around his birthplace, Bergamo, at the turn of the century, it was described by the critic David Thomson as "a mix of Breughel and neo-realism".
It was five years, however, before Olmi made another film. Cammina, cammina (1983) was a modern version of the story of the Three Wise Men, which some found more worthy than inspired. Then, after a documentary in the same year about Milan, he made Long Live the Lady! in 1987 - a brilliant account of young waiters attending a rich old crone and her guests at a dinner that the servants could never afford.
In 1988 he won the main prize at the Venice Film Festival for Legend of the Holy Drinker, an international co-production based on Joseph Roth's novel about a drunken tramp who comes, by chance, into a small fortune. After another four years, Olmi made a poetic documentary about the river Po, Lungo il fiume, followed by The Secret of the Old Wood (1993), another whimsical piece in which a sentient wood defeats plans for its commercial exploitation, with narration by Paul Scofield, in 1994.
He continued working until shortly before his death, winning variable reviews. Il Mestiere delle armi (The Profession of Arms, 2001) set during the 16th Century wars between the mercenary forces of the emperor Charles V and the armies of the Papacy, was nominated for the Palme d'Or, but left many critics baffled, one describing it as the "festival bore". Centochiodi (One Hundred Nails, 2007), began promisingly as a thriller about the wilful destruction of sacred manuscripts, but turned into a somewhat sentimental story of a rural community transformed by the arrival of a reclusive religious scholar. Il Villaggio di cartone (The Cardboard Village, 2011), was dismissed by one critic as "a heavy-handed religious tale with all the nuance of a provincial church pageant".
His final major film, Torneranno i Prati (The Meadows will Bloom Again, 2014), a contribution to the commemoration of World War I was filmed, mostly at night, in the wintry Alto Adige mountains, prompted one reviewer to observe that Olmi "may have never been a great storyteller, but very few filmmakers can hold a candle to his talent as a mood setter".
Ermanno Olmi, who died on May 5, is survived by his wife Loredana and by their two sons and a daughter.