Ermanno Olmi's disappointing follow-up to his luminous 'Singing Behind Screens.'

All the books in the world aren’t nearly as valuable as a single cup of coffee with a friend — so says “One Hundred Nails,” Ermanno Olmi’s disappointing follow-up to his luminous “Singing Behind Screens” (2003). Helmer, now 75, has declared this his last fiction feature, a double-blow for those who felt he’d just reached his most fruitful period — until now. Following a professor’s epiphany from jaded scholar to messiah-like neighbor, unconvincing tale may be screened at offshore Italo fests and retros. But given that Olmi’s last two (superior) pics were shelved internationally, it’s doubtful “Nails” will find takers.

Unsparingly religious in tone, despite the ad line “Religions have never saved the world,” film opens with a scene redolent of “The Da Vinci Code,” as tremulous strings accompany a caretaker’s horrified shouts from a library’s locked gate. When the cops arrive, the cause of his agitation is clear: Someone has nailed 100 precious manuscripts into the floor. Not just normal nails, but big ones, like the kind used to hammer Jesus onto the cross.

While police try to identify the perp, a flashback to the day before shows a professor of philosophy (Raz Degan), whose name Olmi deliberately withholds, bidding farewell to students at semester’s end. Of special significance is an Indian student (Amina Syed), completing her thesis on women and religion, who explains that religion is the one certainty in her people’s lives.

Suddenly, off goes the prof in his BMW convertible, which he abandons before heading to the banks of the Po River and a ruined peasant house. Venturing into town, he’s taken aback by the friendliness of the people, so unlike the bookish city folk back at Bologna U. Flirtations develop, neighbors help him fix up the ruins, and everyone turns to the charismatic newcomer for help when their illegally built community center is threatened with demolition.

How the professor turns into a Christlike figure, or indeed why they need him at all, remains a mystery — Olmi’s sympathetic yet simplistic view of the rural population displays a surprisingly (for him) patronizing attitude, as if they somehow need this intellectual outsider in order to survive. Final shot of candles lit along the road in anticipation of the prof’s return reinforces the sense of deification.

Olmi’s stated aim is to depict a figure exhibiting the humanity of Christ — not the Son of God, but the Son of Man. However, this still begs the question: Would Jesus damage precious manuscripts to make a facile and wrong-headed point? Olmi sets up a questionable dichotomy between an elderly, dried-up monsignor with one milky eye, seen as the rep of the Church and all things bookish, and the handsome professor who’s turned his back on everything but human contact.

In many ways, “One Hundred Nails” harks back to Olmi’s earliest films, with a touch of Pasolini, evident not only in the locations but also the largely nonpro cast. Fabio Olmi’s lensing repeatedly returns to the river’s calm, presenting a timeless land of purer values than those of the city, though lacking the richness of his last two pics with father Ermanno. Music forms a key element, not only Fabio Vacchi’s post-Stravinsky strings, but also Ravel and traditional tunes turned into sacred chorales.

One Hundred Nails

Italy

Production

A Mikado release of a Cinema11unidici, RAI Cinema production. Produced by Luigi Musini, Roberto Cicutto. Executive producer, Elisabetta Olmi. Directed, written by Ermanno Olmi.

Crew

Camera (color), Fabio Olmi; editor, Paolo Cottignola; music, Fabio Vacchi; production designer, Giuseppe Pirrotta; costume designer, Maurizio Millenotti; sound (Dolby Digital), Francesco Liotard; assistant director, Gaia Gorrini. Reviewed at Cinema Quattro Fontane, Rome, March 23, 2007. (In Cannes Film Festival -- 60th Anniversary Tributes.) Running time: 93 MIN. With: Raz Degan, Luna Bendandi, Amina Syed, Michele Zattara, Damiano Scaini, Franco Andreani. (Italian, Po Valley dialect, English dialogue)

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