As the son of a WWI vet, Ermanno Olmi has a personal connection to the “war to end all wars.” Perhaps that’s why his “Greenery Will Bloom Again” is so reverential — reverential to the point of being frozen. Beautifully lensed scenes in the snow-covered trenches of northern Italy testify to the master’s 55 years in the director’s chair, yet this unexpected return to feature filmmaking, set among a company of soldiers battered by Austrian shelling, lacks the fullness of vision that graced “The Profession of Arms.” Local play and reviews in November were respectable, but “Greenery” is unlikely to bloom outside scattered fests and retrospectives.
The film world has been distressingly sluggish in acknowledging WWI’s centenary, so while it’s encouraging to have someone of Olmi’s stature address the horrors of the conflict, the result adds little to the list of superb pics — “The Big Parade,” “Wooden Crosses,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” et al. — to deal head-on with the conflagration, and even falls short as a commemoration of the event. Much of the problem here lies with the vet director’s dutiful approach, full of quiet voices and too-clean line deliveries, with every action and glance fraught with tragedy.
Shooting was done in the mountains of the Veneto’s Altopiano, site of major military action and also the setting for Francesco Rosi’s superior “Uomini contro” (though that pic was lensed in Yugoslavia). A fresh snowfall temporarily halts military action as soldiers, in a stunningly composed scene, dig out the supply trenches. Their sympathetic major (Claudio Santamaria) receives word that communication lines have been tapped by the enemy, who now know their whereabouts. Orders come from HQ that new wires need to be laid, though it’s a suicide mission, since snipers are targeting anyone going beyond the trench.
The most powerful elements of “Greenery” come from the contrast between the darkly lit trench interiors and the vast white landscape around them, punctuated by shells striking the unit’s position. At first just heard in the distant valley below, the mortar blasts inevitably hit much closer to the soldiers’ coordinates, and the staging of the explosions is particularly well handled (though the nonstop muted din of bursting shells in “Journey’s End” created a more effective state of claustrophobic madness). Inevitably, Olmi fans will make comparisons with “The Profession of Arms,” yet these are two very different conflicts, and the previous film offered a more complete picture of character and period.
For auds well versed in history, “Greenery” not only brings no new insight, but also recycles the common perception of a senseless war in which officers sent foot soldiers out to die (in fact, there was a higher percentage of mortality in the officer class than among the rank-and-file). Viewers with little background knowledge — the film is available to all high schools interested in screenings — are unlikely to get involved emotionally, largely because the characters mostly remain nameless, and while the pressures of a certain type of trench warfare are felt, the movie takes an entirely too respectful, slowed approach to truly grab the uninitiated.
The disparity is especially clear toward the end, when Olmi inserts real footage from the period. Scenes of orderly chaos — not just battles but camaraderie — stand in sharp contrast to the unnatural hush that blankets “Greenery Will Bloom Again,” only punctuated by exploding mortar. Fortunately Fabio Olmi’s always striking images, often silvery to reproduce the reflective glow of moonlight on snow, have an intrinsic power that goes beyond the insubstantial though heartfelt script. The satisfying balance between closeups and medium-to-long shots also denotes an expert directorial hand (Maurizio Zaccaro, helmer of a docu on Olmi, is given the ill-defined credit of collaborator). Tonalities are subdued, practically reduced to black-and-white, or sepia-and-white within the trenches, while accordion melodies further the sense of deferential melancholy.