In Italian film history, the cinema of Ermanno Olmi tends to be overlooked. That’s partly understandable. His quiet, meditative films lack the bold stylistic flourishes of the more popular Italian auteurs—the gritty neorealism of Roberto Rossellini, the lush operatics of Luchino Visconti, or the soaring fantasy of Federico Fellini. Olmi’s vision is more understated, the product not only of a disciplined intellect, but also of a generous heart attentive to ordinary people and things.
Now, a year after his death at the age of eighty-six, Olmi is finally getting his due. A recent retrospective at New York’s Film at Lincoln Center screened a range of films drawn from his entire career, which spanned more than six decades, encompassing everything from industrial documentaries and historical reconstructions to literary adaptations and agricultural epics. His best-known work, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, which centered on peasant life in rural Lombardy, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1978. What makes Olmi’s films so compelling is the director’s Catholic sensibility, where the values of faith, work, community, and reverence for the rhythms of nature stand in sharp opposition to the injustices of capitalism and the spiritual emptiness of modernity. Nowhere is Olmi’s idiosyncratic Catholicism more explicit (and more radical) than in two lesser-known films I was unfamiliar with before I had the chance to see them—1988’s Legend of the Holy Drinker and 1965’s A Man Named John.