Ermanno Olmi, the post-neorealist Italian director best known for The Tree Of Wooden Clogs, Il Posto, and I Fidanzati, has died. Equally drawn to social and spiritual concerns, Olmi remained an outsider among European art filmmakers of the ‘60s generation because of his strong Catholic faith and his rural and working-class roots, which informed his choice of subjects. He was 86.
Olmi was born in 1931 in Bergamo, near the foothills of the Italian Alps. His mother worked at a spinning mill; his father, a train engineer and a vocal anti-fascist, was killed during World War II. As a young man, he moved to Milan to pursue his dream of becoming an actor, but instead ended up working for the Edison electric utility. The job would provide Olmi with a circuitous path into cinema. Initially hired as a messenger, he soon found himself shooting industrial films and documentaries for the company. By the time he made his feature debut with Time Stood Still, a low-budget film set at a hydroelectric dam construction site in the Alps, Olmi had directed around 40 short films for Edison.
Olmi’s breakthrough came in with his 1961 wry sophomore feature, Il Posto, a somewhat autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a small-town teenager who gets a job as a messenger for an unnamed corporation in Milan. The film—which co-starred Olmi’s wife, Loredana Detto—was followed in 1963 by I Fidanzati, another portrait of young adulthood set against the backdrop of Italy’s industrial north. But though these early films suggested an Italian answer to the more humanist strains of the era’s French and Czech New Waves, Olmi’s career rapidly diverged from these contemporaries. Having kept up the work ethic of his Edison days, he spent much of the 1960s and 1970s directing shorts and documentaries for TV, alongside such decidedly un-hip projects as A Man Named John, his 1965 biopic of Pope John XXIII.
The Tree Of Wooden Clogs, which took the top prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, would become his most celebrated film—an ambitious three-hour epic about peasant life in turn-of-the-century Bergamo, with dialogue in the local Bergamasque dialect. Like much of Olmi’s work, it built on the foundation of neorealism (particularly the films of Olmi’s idol, Roberto Rossellini) to create a personal style fitted to the director’s own concerns with political history, faith, and the underclass. His movies remained committed to many of the most famous principles of neorealism—most notably for their preference for non-professional actors—while feeling out a form and drab ambiance of their own.
Though he found many admirers in the international film world—most famously the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and the British directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach—Olmi was always much better known at home than abroad. His other notable films included The Legend Of The Holy Drinker (1988), starring Rutger Hauer, and The Profession Of Arms (2001), a persuasively grimy mediation on the roots of modern warfare, featuring the least flattering—and probably the most realistic—depiction of Renaissance combat ever committed to film. (Holy Drinker—which was shot by Dante Spinotti, the cinematographer best known for his work with Michael Mann—is fascinating to look at, too.) Most of Olmi’s later fiction films embraced both atmospheric effects and contrasts of stylization and grittiness, with varying degrees of success. His final feature, the World War I drama The Greenery Will Bloom Again, was released in 2014.