Ermanno Olmi Appreciation: An Art-House Giant Who Deserved More Attention

It was 30 years ago that my first screenwriting credit, “Iguana,” was invited to the Venice Film Festival, the same year that Italian director Ermanno Olmi’s “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” screened in competition and scooped up the Golden Lion.

And yet, such was the state of American distribution that both films faced obscurity in the U.S. What does it say about the state of the American art-house movement, I pondered at the time, when films from European masters like Olmi can win the top award from fests like Venice and not even merit a small theatrical release?

Now Olmi, who passed away Monday, has gone to the big art house in the sky, and thanks to a miracle I’m sure the devoutly Catholic auteur would credit to a Christian God, we have his life’s work to savor, his odes to our humanity and his Lord to nourish our souls.

The film that put Olmi in the big leagues of cinema heavy-hitters back when Americans were packing art houses coast-to-coast was “Il Posto,” which I learned about from “Iguana” director Monte Hellman, whom some have described as Olmi’s spiritual counterpart in the U.S.

“Il Posto” was a late-period Italian neo-realist triumph for Olmi early in his career, but he didn’t really have the follow-ups to achieve the iconic status of such globally-celebrated European directors as Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, Bergman, et al. His other international art-house hit came nearly two decades later when “The Tree of the Wooden Clogs” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1978.

“Legend of the Holy Drinker” is the great redwood that fell in the 1980s art-house forest, a film so central to my own belief in cinema that I still find it incomprehensible that it’s missing on virtually every list of the greatest films of all time.

Taken from the Joseph Roth novella, its simple yarn of a Parisian drunk’s failed — or not — attempts at redemption is a transcendent experience for its small legion of fans. I’ve made the pilgrimage to the little church in Montmartre where its hero speaks to the saint to whom he’s pledged patronage. I’ve scouted out the square and stepped across the stones where he stumbled, the café where he sipped his wine.

Yep, it’s my “Star Wars.”

And I’m still angry at the critics and crowds in Cannes in 2001 who hated Olmi’s “Profession of Arms,” which is another brilliant meditation upon man and spirit, waiting for your appraisal.

I’m still amazed that Olmi’s late-career gems, “Singing Behind Screens,” (a female pirate movie with Bud Spencer!) and his perfect Christ parable “One Hundred Nails” remain virtually unseen.

And I’m still deeply grateful for my one encounter with Olmi at the European Film Awards at the beginning of this century. I haven’t met the Pope or the Dalai Lama, but I met Olmi, so I’m good.

And for you, dear reader? May I suggest the Criterion Collection, or FilmStruck or wherever Olmi’s light is shining? It’s really just a handful of movies for you to make time for in between space spectacles and spandex ballets.

My modest New Hope? Perhaps the death of the art house will some day in the future lead to a resurrection of appreciation for the giants such as Ermanno Olmi who focused on human hearts and eternal mysteries for their special effects.

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