Critical Appreciation: Ermanno Olmi

ROME — Few directors meriting the rank of “world-class” have seen their critical fortunes tossed about as often as 77-year-old Italo helmer Ermanno Olmi, who will receive a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale on Sept. 4.

From his start in the early 1950s with a series of documentaries for the Edison Vortex company, Olmi has continued to revisit themes related to the position of the everyman worker, but, nearly as often, he’s incorporated a deep commitment to a socially responsive Catholicism whose decidedly un-p.c. stance has led many pundits to gloss over these films or ignore their ramifications in his career.

To do so, however, risks misunderstanding both the man and his oeuvre. While it’s not a flawless track record — arguably a couple of his well-received features don’t hold up well after repeat viewing, and his most recent film, “One Hundred Nails” (2007), retains interest largely as a summation of his philosophy — his early reworking of neorealism with a New Wave sensibility gave birth to several masterpieces, while an unexpected late-flowering with “The Profession of Arms” (2001) and “Singing Behind Screens” (2003) proved this was not a locked-in artist resting on familiar laurels.

Still, his core themes, often interwoven, remain constant: the inherent dignity of the working man, the bond between humanity and nature, the grace bestowed by faith, and the upheaval of war.

Born in the Lombard city of Bergamo, Olmi came of artistic age during a time when postwar optimism mixed with social upheaval in a turbulent crucible, a time when Italy’s economic boom promised security at the cost of destabilized traditional relationships and an ever-widening divide between city and countryside. Not that he’s anti-city — witness the charming Nescafe ad from 1969 available on YouTube or his docu “Milan ’83” (1983) — but his belief in the mystical tie between people and the land informs most of his films.

His early short documentaries, finally available on DVD through the Feltrinelli label, incorporate expressions of solidarity with the working class while addressing this intimate bond between nature and man; Venice is screening “Manon: Finestra 2″ (1956), the first of two shorts on which Pasolini collaborated as scripter. In retrospect, such early works play like obvious lead-ups to Olmi’s first feature, “Time Stood Still” (1959), which incorporates a docu style (the pic was originally slated as nonfiction) in a mountain-set tale of the relationship between a young student and an older dam worker.

This was also the start of Olmi’s expert use of nonprofessionals, an artistic decision he’s continuously adopted, with notable exceptions, since the beginning.

Real acclaim came with his second feature, “The Job” (1961), released in the U.S. as “The Sound of Trumpets.” Exquisitely calibrated with enormous sympathy for its characters (indeed, Olmi married his leading lady Loredana Detto), few movies have so expertly, and sympathetically, delineated the sense of the modern world careening headlong into the future, leaving a bewildered class swept up in its path without guidelines.

Few movies, that is, until his follow-up “The Fiances” (1963). Touchstones of modern cinema — acknowledged as such when Criterion chose to release them on DVD — the pair show Olmi as a director who imbibed the lessons of Rossellini, Bresson and Resnais while offering something new and vital in his vision of young men and women struggling to survive while interpersonal connections threaten to slip from their grasp.

The extraordinary maturity Olmi demonstrated with these two works led two years later to the first of his unexpected shifts, “And There Came a Man,” a bio portrait of Pope John XXIII starring Rod Steiger. The impact of John XXIII, with his deep humility and revolutionary outreach to the common man, should not be underestimated in considerations of Olmi’s subsequent paths, which treat religion as the ultimate grace note.

Though awards were already accruing, it was the lyrical Palme d’Or winner “The Tree of the Wooden Clogs” (1978) that thrust Olmi into worldwide fame, and on which his reputation now largely rests for those needing to reduce a prolific director’s career to one work. A profoundly humane and sympathetic film with affinities to Zola, “Wooden Clogs” (a newly restored print preemed at the right-wing Fiuggi Family Festival in July) ties in perfectly to Olmi’s desire to conjure the world — here the region where he was born — in its long post-Eden decline, as God’s command to till the soil becomes increasingly burdened by outside concerns.

Later awards also came, notably a Silver Lion for the delightfully eccentric “Long Live the Lady!” (1987) and a Golden Lion for “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” (1988). Following the cloying preciousness of “The Secret of the Old Woods” (1993), it was a stunning surprise to see Olmi shift gears with his masterful take on the transformative nature of warfare, “The Profession of Arms.”

Along with the ravishing “Singing Behind Screens,” it criminally escaped the notice of American distribs, perhaps uncertain how to market works of such singular vision.

With the release of “One Hundred Nails,” Olmi declared he was through with features, and would return to the kinds of documentaries he continued to make throughout his career. Health issues certainly contributed to the decision, though perhaps he also felt his last work already summed up his philosophy, predicated on the Golden Rule and the quest for ultimate salvation through simple faith.

Jay Weissberg is Variety’s Rome-based film critic.

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