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Born: Bergamo, Italy, 24 July 1931.

Ermanno Olmi (JPG, 17 KB)

Unusual among Italian directors in being of working-class (originally peasant) origin, Olmi started his film career as a maker of in-house documentaries for the Edison Volta electric company of which he was an employee. After making documentaries in the 1950s he wrote and shot his first feature, Il tempo si fermato / Time Stood Still, a delicate study of two men trapped in the mountains, in 1959. Still in the same documentary-influenced style he made Il posto / The Job (1961) and I fidanzati / The Engagement (1963), establishing himself as a sensitive and careful observer, not afraid to use a deliberately undramatic narrative rhythm. Another facet to his character - his Catholicism - emerged with E venne un uomo / A Man Named John (1965), a biopic of Pope John XXIII narrated by Rod Steiger. After a relatively fallow period in the mid-1970s he returned to prominence with L'albero degli zoccoli / The Tree of Wooden Clogs, a peasant family saga which won the Palme d'or at Cannes in 1978 and was widely interpreted as a Catholic and politcally right-of-centre (so by implication Christian-Democrat) response to Bernardo Bertolucci's Marxist epic Novecento / 1900 (1976), though a more pointed contrast could be made between the full-blown rhetoric of Bertolucci and Olmi's gentle understatement. In the 1980s Olmi obtained commissions mainly from Italy's state-owned RAI television network and reverted to documentary, but a deal struck with RAI, the producer Mario Cecchi Gori and a French company enabled him to make a foray into international film with La leggenda del santo bevitore / The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), an adaptation of Joseph Roth's novel, enlivened by a marvellous performance by Rutger Hauer as the eponymous drinker. A full-length documentary, Lungo il fiume / Down the River (1992), about the ecology of the Po valley, rich in pious sentiment but short on analysis, revealed his limitations as a filmmaker, but his early unpretentious films will secure his place in film history.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Encylopedia of European Cinema

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