A rigorous account of the final days in the life of Giovanni De Medici, who embraced his role as a soldier with an almost religious devotion and fervor, “The Profession of Arms” is veteran Italian director Ermanno Olmi’s most accomplished and cogent work in years. Demanding, difficult and almost impenetrable at first due to its dense salvo of historical figures and events, this atmospheric drama slowly evolves into a fascinating character portrait and a deeply humanistic meditation on war and death. Olmi’s eloquent Renaissance apologia for gun control is unlikely to make Charlton Heston’s top 10 and is too inaccessible even for the normal foreign film crowd, but might find admirers at the extreme high end of the arthouse niche.
A legendary warrior despite his young age, renowned for his valor and good fortune in battle, Giovanni (referred to here in old Italian as Joanni) had his troops blacken their armor to advance unseen on the enemy by night, earning them the name of the Black Band. Opening with the funeral in 1526 of 28-year-old Giovanni (Bulgarian newcomer Hristo Jivkov), the drama backtracks one week to chronicle his mission as leader of the Papal mercenary army that provided the final protective barrier between his uncle, Pope Clement VII, and the advancing German lansquenet forces of Charles V.
With Italian liberty careening toward an end, political confusion was accelerating and loyalties were severely compromised, prompting the Papal hierarchy in Rome and the country’s noblemen to secure whatever personal gains they could from a rapidly deteriorating situation. As a result of this chaos, Giovanni’s call for reinforcements and weapons fell on deaf ears.
Olmi’s backgrounding of this chronicle is limited largely to identifying the extended gallery of characters with onscreen titles. In Italy, where most audiences have some knowledge of historical figures such as the Medicis and Gonzagas and geographical familiarity with the Northern countryside along the Po River where the events take place, the minimal exposition may not present a problem. Foreign audiences likely will have great difficulty distinguishing who’s who and where their allegiances lie. In this respect, however, the film may benefit from having its wordy old-Italian text condensed into more concise, easily comprehensible subtitles.
But just as Olmi, while reflecting on the futility of war, displays only a finite interest in the spectacle of battle, so his aim is less to document particular historical events than to use them as a spiritual springboard for his examination of the human soul and, most importantly, the process of facing death with dignity.
That aim is underlined by an approach that distances itself from the detached documentary feel of Olmi’s best-known work, such as 1978 Palme d’Or-winner “Tree of Wooden Clogs,” adopting instead a more impressionistic style that steadily builds depth and nuance. Also a departure is the lean editing and use of short pithy scenes here, whereas Olmi’s films frequently have tended toward dull longwindedness. (Shooting script reportedly ran much longer and was considerably modified during post.)
While the first half of the film focuses on Giovanni’s courage and dedication to his task as soldier and protector, the second half portrays him bringing that same sense of bravery and calm acceptance to the days of suffering that precede his death.
His downfall comes during a clash with the Germans, who, thanks to self-serving Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua (Sergio Grammatico) and the Duke of Ferrara (Giancarlo Belelli), have come into possession of four newly introduced light cannons known as falconets. Seriously wounded in the upper leg, Giovanni endures the amputation of his gangrenous limb and a final four days of agony. A closing quotation from the period, advocating an end to the use of firearms, encapsulates Olmi’s pacifist message.
It’s in the powerful, remarkably sustained account of Giovanni’s deathbed torment that Olmi masterfully expands the scope of his erudite character study.
Shifting between lucidity and mild delirium, surrounded by the men who have betrayed and supported him and by mocking, carnal frescos, Giovanni reflects on his life and work, his dutiful wife (Dessy Tenekedjieva) and his mistress (Sandra Ceccarelli), a noblewoman from Mantua carrying his child. What emerges is a quietly stirring portrait of the martyrdom of a man of unshakable faith and courage, an expert in the art of war tainted by human weaknesses but fueled by firm convictions and oddly noble sentiments.
Olmi’s ultra-Catholic ideology and sermonizing on Christian values have contributed to distance many critics from his work over the past twenty years. But here those beliefs are employed with uncharacteristic moderation and intelligence. This is especially notable in a scene in which Giovanni’s ruffian soldiers are reprimanded by their leader as they destroy a plundered crucifix for firewood.
More than a history lesson, this is an atmosphere-driven drama. Lensing by the director’s son Fabio Olmi could perhaps have benefited from the enhanced visual sweep of widescreen rather than standard 35mm. But the choice of shooting the austere castles and Po River settings (Bulgarian locations stood in for the majority) in gloomy candlelight or through mist, sleet and snow adds a rich texture to the film’s formal beauty and the painterly composition of almost every frame. Composer Fabio Vacchi’s fretful strings and melancholy choral arrangements also are effective.
Continuing his preference for using mainly little-known or non-professional actors, Olmi has assembled a mixed cast of Italians and Central Europeans, and while the post-synched dialogue imposes a slightly flat studio sound, the expressive faces, free from actorish mannerisms, contribute greatly to the film’s arresting solemnity.