The death of his father during the Second World War led Ermanno Olmi to seek work at an early age. From the age of 18, he worked as a factory clerk, a position he would occupy for nearly ten years. Ironically, factory life would also enable Olmi to discover his true vocation when he became involved in industrial film production for the Edison-Volta company. From 1953 to 1961, Olmi was involved in the making of at least forty documentary shorts. His first feature Time Stood Still was initially commissioned as a short documentary on a hydroelectric dam built in the Italian Alps. The resulting film was an unusual two-character “chamber piece”; the chamber being a cabin in the snow-bound Alps which housed a middle-aged watchman and a younger man who joins him as a temporary replacement.
Already visible is Olmi’s detailed minimalism, a style which evokes the richness of the small forgotten moments of everyday life. His first international success, and most influential film, was his second feature. Il Posto was inspired in part by Olmi’s experience as a factory clerk, but the action was updated to contemporary Milan in the wake of Italy’s storied economic miracle. Olmi depicted the alienated nature of the modern workplace. His protagonist Domenico (Sandro Panseri) discovers the extent to which his personal life is determined by the framework of his dead-end job. The film received a prize at the Venice Film Festivaland would become a defining influence on film-makers Abbas Kiarostami and Martin Scorsese.
Olmi’s succeeding film I Fidanzati (The Fiancés’) was a striking departure from his previous works. The film’s intricate flashback structure alternates the present of a factory worker’s period of adjustment in Sicilywith memories of his relationship with his fiancée back home in Milan. Recognized as a masterpiece byRoberto Rossellini, I Fidanzati won the Ecumenical prize at the Cannes Film Festival. This early summit was followed by a period of inconsistency as Olmi alternated short documentaries with films funded by RAI, the national television company. The strongest works from this period includes Un certo giorno, The Scavengers and The Circumstance.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs, made in 1978, would return him to the international spotlight. Inspired by childhood stories told by his Grandparents, the film was an epic portrait of 19th Century life in his nativeLombardy. It received the Palme d’Or and is regarded as Olmi’s masterpiece. Ill-health temporarily halted the director’s output (which nonetheless remains active as of the present moment). The period which followed marked a turn to religious subjects. The Legend of the Holy Drinker, an adaptation of a novel by Joseph Roth, and Genesis: The Creation and The Flood are regarded among his best works by critic Kent Jones. Among his more recent works is Tickets, a 2005 omnibus featuring shorts by Abbas Kiarostami andKen Loach in addition to Ermanno Olmi’s contribution. His upcoming film The Cardboard Village will re-unite him with Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, who starred in The Legend of the Holy Drinker.