Idealistic forest rangers square off against faceless poachers in “Barnabo of the Mountains,” a cold, uninvolving, albeit rigorously filmed costumer. Mario Brenta’s minimalist aesthetic may impress some film specialists, but won’t get general audiences out of their log cabins to view it. Pic’s fest life, which began in the Cannes competition, will probably terminate in scattered small-screen sales.
Based on a novel by Dino Buzzati, “Barnabo” has a similarly uneventful plot to Buzzati’s “Desert of the Tartars,” combined with the Christian mountain theme of some Ermanno Olmi films. (Brenta is one of the founders of Olmi’s famous film school in the Alps.) The result is a dully portrayed moral fable of little impact.
Story opens in 1919, when a green young ranger (Marco Tonin) is murdered while stalking some poachers through the snowy Dolomites in northern Italy. Not a word is spoken for the first 15 minutes, allowing the grandeur of nature, the wind, the firs and falling snow to transport the viewer into what Brenta hopes (in a prologue) is a “mythic” realm.
Enter Barnabo (Marco Pauletti), a fresh recruit whose simple heart is well suited to a monotonous life. He speaks even less than his fellows, and has a sort of stigmata on his hand that mysteriously bleeds from time to time. He also has a bad relationship with his rifle, suggesting he is unwilling to take life.
But when the rangers’ commanding officer is killed by the poachers, everyone agrees something must be done. A patrol is organized but turns up no trace of the murderers. It’s Barnabo who stumbles onto them, but when his big moment comes, he doesn’t shoot. It’s hard to decide whether this is out of pure fear and cowardice, or because of ingrained Christian pacifism. In any case, he’s discharged from the service.
Barnabo finds work as a farmhand and meditates on what has happened. His exile offers some temporary relief from mountain metaphysics. This is the most concrete part of the film, containing many historical details of backbreaking farm life in the hemp fields in the immediate postwar years. Barnabo’s encounter with poor men headed for Argentina to find work is a moving interlude.
The story ends with a moral struggle within Barnabo and his paradoxical victory over the old taint of cowardice.
Subscribing to the less-is-more school, Brenta has a Bressonian reverence for simple gestures, extreme closeups and wordless images. He opts for simply composed frames, clean camera movements, silent faces meant to speak their humanity.
It’s a tall order that only a few directors can pull off and, to Brenta’s credit, his rigor does lend depth to the story. Everything is surrounded by the spiritual heights of the mountains, suggesting — a little self-consciously — pic’s metaphysical dimension.
Roberto Missiroli’s editing succeeds in capturing a frozen-time quality (often reminiscent of Olmi’s 1959 mountain classic “Time Stood Still”) without dragging shots out unnecessarily. Stefano Caprioli’s anonymous, high-classical score has little to add.
The entirely non-pro cast — which includes many real-life rangers (like lead Pauletti) and farm hands — is generally stolid and inexpressive. Exception is a wonderfully natural 11-year-old girl, Alessandra Milan, who has the face of a peasant saint.