Ermanno Olmi: Banal to Beautiful

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One consistent quality present in several of Ermanno Olmi’s films is the sublimation of the banal by using modernist and neorealist aesthetics in order to create an engaged cinema (Marcus, 212).  Sublimation here is intended as the process of elevating of the banal from ordinary status to beauty (Cohn & Miles, 289).  The reason that such an assumption is justified can be gleaned from Boileau’s writing on the sublime, which, “…would carry into English two significant aspects of the word sublime itself: the sense that the sublime need not and indeed should not reside in a deliberately grand style, and the implication that the measure of the sublime would lie in the effect it had on an audience”(Cohn & Miles, 297).   As an auteur, Olmi’s style is not “grand”, and precisely for his subtlety, as will be seen, he is able to achieve what he most strives for, which is to have his film(s), “…demand that the spectator take responsibility for it”(Marcus, 211).

His first feature film was Il Posto, released in 1961.  In brief, the film follows the transitioning moment in young Domenico’s life in which he enters the workplace.  The clip selected belongs to a longer sequence that tracks his travel route from home to work, which should be quickly noted, as it informs the clip selected.  The larger sequence begins with Domenico leaving for the train station from his rural setting and heading for work.  In earlier scenes, his home is established as being on the periphery of the city in a former agricultural setting, where the parked cars in the background occupy spaces that were once stables.  Even his home, as Olmi states in an interview, was a farmhouse before the war (Olmi, Interview). In contrast, there is Domenico’s workplace in Milan, which is always represented through architecturally defined compositions that accentuate the rigidity of the spaces the workers inhabit.  One such example is a still from the film in which Domenico walks down a long hallway.

il posto still

The blank walls, as well as the repetition of ceiling lamps and entrances create a sensation of eternal monotony.  Paired with the space itself is the fact that within the film, Olmi allows the shot of Domenico’s walk to last in real time.  The combination of the two sends a powerful message as to what the office space signifies.

The clip relates to the contrast between Domenico’s home and his workplace insofar as it demonstrates the effect the alienated workplace has had on its workers in comparison to those, such as Domenico, who have yet to be initiated into the hegemony of the working world.

The train ride is an ordinary event for everyone taking it except Domenico, whose gaze endows the scene with its sublime quality. At first, when Domenico is looking out the window, the viewer is denied the image of what he sees.  Instead, Domenico looks back into his train car, with the camera cutting to show other passengers that are ignorant of what he sees.  In only two cuts, Olmi establishes Domenico as the privileged gaze, which is why only he takes note of what lies beyond the train.  Furthermore, only Domenico is softly lit, visually connecting him to the hazy softness of the sun that he watches.  The beauty is so persistent that even with the dark disturbances of the buildings or bridges outside of the train, it continues to reappear and shine.

Though a seemingly insignificant moment, the film’s power lies precisely in the stringing together of several small vignettes of life that once united, create an emotionally charged message.  The emotive quality of this scene, as well as many others throughout the film, harkens back to neorealism, in that, “…consiste unicamente in un clima morale ed emotivo che ha permesso di riconquistare une dimensione umana concreta che fino a quel momento il cinema aveva dimenticato….”(Tabanelli, 70).  Not surprising is this clip’s use of neorealist aesthetic practices that render the moment emotive.

The sequence is shot and edited in a neorealist manner, meaning that within twenty-five seconds of film, there are a total of three cuts with a long take focusing especially on the sun.  Another small detail is that the filmmaker chose to leave in the interruptions of the landscape, which creates a yearning for the sun to return and substitute the drab environment from town to city.   By using very minimal but precise editing and camera choices, Olmi allows the viewer to experience the beauty of something as ordinary as the sun, thus taking something rather banal and rendering it beautiful so that the viewers become aware of what Domenico, (as well as we ourselves), stand to lose in conforming to the homogenous factory work culture.

The second and third clips come from Olmi’s film, I Fidanzati.  This film, made in 1963, is less neorealist than Il Posto, but as we shall see with the second clip, neorealist aesthetics are still very much a part of the film, even if the first clip is closer to modernist aesthetics.  Ultimately, both achieve what Kovacs describes about Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which is that, “Instead of contiguity, there is a strong contrast between the characters’ desolate psychic state and the diversity and beauty of the world around them”(Kovacs, 150).

Within the loose narrative of the film, this clip takes place on Giovanni’s first day at work during his stay in Sicily. Again, Olmi takes something banal, the construction site, and converts it into a place of industrial beauty.  The effect of beauty lies in the shot compositions and angles, as well as the diverse point of view shots from different camera positions.  Though the monumental low angles remind one of the soldier and little boy sitting on rubble in Rosselini’s Paisa’, the overall impression of the clip is that it resides in a modernist aesthetic approach.  The sequence, unlike any other in the film that takes place in present time, is very dynamic which is greatly due to the pacing of the editing.

Besides the faster paced editing in comparison to the rest of the film, Olmi’s use of tracking shots, pans up and down and side to side, movement captured within still frames, as well as the extremes of low and high angles create an entire world in its own respect, and returning back to Kovacs, this beauty contrasts Giovanni’s psychic state, which is not fully in sync with the industrial environment.  The way this is conveyed is through subtle shifts in camera point of view.  At first, the viewer sees Giovanni looking around.  The camera then cuts to what he sees, but continues cutting to other shots that are physically impossible to be from his point of view.  Therefore, as an omniscient camera that presents this site, and not Giovanni’s perspective, the viewer understands that Giovanni isn’t invested in the gaze.  He only reappears at the end, when the viewer sees his face becoming aware of the sound of the ambulance siren.

One of the key points in Bazin’s essay, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, arises from his discussion of montage in relation to spatial unity.  He says, “It is simply a question of respect for the spatial unity of an event at the moment when to split it up would change it from something real into something imaginary”(Bazin, 50).  Olmi uses that principle as a means of creating not only the agricultural environment, but the pace of life on this particular salt farm.

The sequence begins with a long shot of Giovanni wandering into the salt fields, surveying the farmers.  The camera shifts from his perspective and begins tracking him.  There is a long take of Giovanni and the salt farmer walking along a narrow path.  Then, the sequence cuts to two more shots from different camera positions of them walking along the same path.  Olmi’s choice to spend so much time on documenting Giovanni walking is reminiscent of Bazin’s statement because the minimal editing and shot length is what creates the temporal and spatial reality of the salt farmers, whose work differs a lot in space and pace in comparison to the frenetic lifestyle of working on a construction site.

The construction site sequence is made beautiful by the selection of objects presented and the fact that not once is the site shown in its entirety.  Instead, it is presented through a plethora of close-ups of certain machinery, and building parts set in motion and shown from varying high and low angles.  The salt farm sequence, on the other hand, is equally beautiful, but for the opposite reasons.  Though there are a few close ups of the windmill being set up and running, the dominant shot scale is the long shot, which creates the painting-like frames. Despite the aesthetic differences between the clips that establish diverse environments at odds with each other, both are equally visually beautiful, informing the viewer that both bear the same value of importance.

Nowhere better does this come through than at the end of the salt farm sequence. The exchange between Giovanni and the salt farmer is one-sided, because when Giovanni says, “buongiorno”, the salt farmer doesn’t reciprocate the greeting.  This connects the two clips because though Giovanni belongs to the industrial sector, it is important to note that while working on the site, he never speaks nor is spoken to.  Therefore, he is not a fully integrated member of that world, nor can he be part of the agricultural world, which comes through in the fact that he is snubbed by the salt farmer. The discourse that then emerges is how to create dialogue, literally and figuratively, between the two sectors, without having one suffer more than the other.  This desire for balance and equality is precisely the reason Olmi created dazzling, as well as truthful representations of these two separate environments.   

The last clip is from his 1967 film, La Cotta.  This clip was chosen to demonstrate the inverse of what has been discussed up to this point.  Perhaps demonstrating the negative will help reaffirm the positive.  Therefore, with this last clip, we will see how Olmi applies the inverse process to beauty, in which within a context of the beautiful, a disturbing moment occurs, which makes the spectator take responsibility of what he/she has just witnessed.

La Cotta differs from Il Posto and I Fidanzati in that it’s not a drama, but a light romantic comedy.  That’s not to devalue the film, as it also has its profound message, but the exaggerated “seriousness” of Andrea’s woes differs greatly from Domenico and Giovanni, who are both inward protagonists of little words. The beauty then of this film is its lightness and sweetness that consistently rings a heart-warming note.  However, there is one instance, perhaps the only disturbing moment in the film, when Andrea leaves a bar on New Year’s Eve and witnesses a man hitting a woman.

Aesthetically, the abusive moment is only broken up once with a cut away to Andrea and another bystander’s reaction.  Otherwise, it is captured in a very documentarian fashion. Furthermore, the action is captured in real time without camera frame manipulation, again, belonging very much to the documentary aesthetic closely linked with neorealism.  On the modernist flip side, the depiction of the man hitting his wife is narratively irrelevant to Andrea’s goal of getting to Jeanine.  Though the brief moment is a documentation of life as it unravels before Andrea’s eyes, it is also a spectacle, a distraction from the plot, adding to the elliptical feel of the narrative.

Thematically speaking, this brief sequence belongs to neorealism and  modernism as well.  It can be seen as pertaining to the neorealist practice of focusing more on community, versus the modernist preference for the individual.  But with the combination of the aesthetic and thematic choices from both movements, Olmi manipulates his seemingly random plot disruption into a disturbing moment that, in contrast to the gaiety and festivities, sticks out in our minds, engaging us in taking responsibility of not only for the beauty in life, but the ugliness as well.

In the essay, “Olmi’s Il Posto: Discrediting the economic miracle”, Millicent Marcus poses the question, “…if neorealism first arose in response to a concrete set of historical circumstances, how could the ten years of political and economic changes which separate Umberto D from Il Posto not bring with it the need for aesthetic changes of a corresponding order?(Marcus, 213)”. Though a rhetorical question, it is one that should be thought about.  With Olmi, the changes that did separate him from his neorealist predecessors played a significant role in his filmmaking, because he was not simply a continuer of neorealism.  As we have seen, he also integrated late modernist aesthetic practices into his films, creating products that were artistically updated, but that inherited the neorealist drive for responsible cinema.  He took universally banal subjects and topics, but transformed their ordinariness into beauty, or vice versa, in order to spread messages that were accessible to the majority in content and in thought.

Works Cited:

Bazin, Andre’.  “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, What is Cinema? (Berkeley, 1967, University of California Press) 41-52 .

Cohn, Jan and Miles, Thomas H.  “The Sublime:  In Alchemy, Aesthetics and Psychoanalysis”, Modern Philology, Vol 74, No. 3 (Feb. 1977) 289-304. Print.

Kovacs, Andras Balint. “Chapter 7: Styles Modernism”, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980.  (Chicago, 2007, University of Chicago Press) 150.

Marcus, Millicent. “Olmi’s Il posto: Discrediting the Economic Miracle”, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton, 1986, Princeton University Press) 211-227.

Olmi, Ermanno. Interview. Il Posto. Dir. Ermanno Olmi.  DVD, Criterion Collection, 1961.

Tabanelli, Giorgio. Ermanno Olmi: Nascita del documentario poetico. (Roma, 1987, Bulzoni Editore Roma).

Films Cited:

I Fidanzati, Ermanno Olmi (1963)

Il Posto, Ermanno Olmi (1961)

La Cotta, Ermanno Olmi (1967)

Paisa’, Roberto Rosselini (1946)

Umberto D, Vittorio De Sica (1952)

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