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Arthouse vet Ermanno Olmi ("The Tree of Wooden Clogs") undertakes a noble defense of nature against man's destructiveness in the fable "The Secret of the Old Woods." While not a bad movie, it's one that may never find an audience.

Arthouse vet Ermanno Olmi (“The Tree of Wooden Clogs”) undertakes a noble defense of nature against man’s destructiveness in the fable “The Secret of the Old Woods.” While not a bad movie, it’s one that may never find an audience.

Pic’s language and imagery suggest Olmi is targeting an under-14 audience. But at 134 minutes, and far too leisurely a pace, this won’t hold kids’ interest , and adults will be distanced from the forest creatures with Bambi-like voices. There’s a nice 90-minute kidpic lurking here, which a courageous cutter ought to look for.

Dino Buzzati’s cute short story takes place in the mountains of northern Italy around the turn of the century. Retired military man Col. Procolo (played against type by stout comedian Paolo Villaggio) has inherited a majestic forest, which he is to manage until his little nephew (Riccardo Zannantonio) comes of age.

The only condition is to respect the Old Woods and its centuries-old trees. The grumpy, Dickensian colonel moves into a lodge and hatches a plan to cut down the trees and sell the wood.

He receives a stern warning from a tree spirit disguised as a forest ranger, Bernardi (Giulio Brogio), that each tree is inhabited by a benevolent genie who can help man. When Procolo fells the first, the forest becomes populated by men and women who have come to bid adieu to their sylvan companion.

Villaggio brings a gentleness to the cynical colonel that helps deepen a one-dimensional role, though he hasn’t too much room to operate. As the young nephew, Zannantonio, with a much smaller part, offers a strong character for kids to identify with.

If time is no object, it’s pleasant

to sit back and enjoy Olmi’s vision of the magnificent living forest. Talking foxes with Disney-like voices are a little harder to take, not to mention poetic magpies and mean but chatty winds.

Lenser Dante Spinotti (“The Last of the Mohicans”) turns the San Marco woods — a national forest reserve near Cortina d’Ampezzo — into a natural wonder, one that needs no genies to radiate a magical aura.

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  • Production: A Penta Distribuzione (Italy) release of a Penta Film/Aura Film co-production. (International sales: Penta Intl., London.) Produced by Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Roberto Cicutto, Vincenzo De Leo. Directed, written by Ermanno Olmi, based on a short story by Dino Buzzati.
  • Crew: Camera (Telecolor), Dante Spinotti; editor, Paolo Cottignola, Fabio Olmi; music, Franco Piersanti; art direction, Paolo Biagetti; costume design, Maurizio Millenotti; sound, in Dolby. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (non-competing), Sept. 6, 1993. Running time: 134 MIN.
  • With: Col. Procolo ... Paolo Villaggio Bernardi ... Giulio Brogio Benvenuto ... Riccardo Zannantonio Overseer ... Lino Pais Marden Giaco ... Luciano Zandonella Archivist ... Ernesto De Martin Modolado Teacher ... Silvano Cetta
  • Music By: