FILM A bittersweet tone in movies is an easy thing to flub. The most common culprits are asinine sentimentalism and mock-solemnity, neither of which figures into the graceful cinema of Ermanno Olmi. His early films, Il Posto (1961) and I Fidanzati (1963), still exhibit an impossibly light touch, with a warm humanist core of glances, material texture, and yearning wrapped in a dispassionate view of industrialized alienation.
In Il Posto, a boy's coming-of-age is rendered a split decision: his entrance into the Milanese workplace is a gloomy premonition of adulthood, but there's a taste of love for succor. Olmi's breakthrough would have seemed small even if it hadn't come on the heels of L'Avventura (1960) and La Dolce Vita (1960). It's easy to imagine that Il Posto's quotidian pleasures might have seemed retrogressive in this contextbut with contests for neorealism's soul laid to rest, it's easy to appreciate Olmi's remarkable skill directing amateur actors, his elegant sequencing, and his aching cinematography, as ravishingly revealing as Robert Frank's contemporaneous photographs. Insofar as the world-weariness of The Exiles (1961) and Killer of Sheep (1977) relate to the Italian style, they travel the Olmi path.
The director has been drawn to simple characters and stories throughout his career, but his own formal means can be surprisingly experimental. In the prolonged opening of I Fidanzati, for instance, Olmi fragments two estranged lovers' circumnavigation of a dance, stitching together the story of a relationship with a series of elusive encounters plucked from time. The jag echoes Alain Resnais' early films, but a bookending montage of the lovers reading each other's letters uses the same technique against the modernist grain, for emotional warmth.
While Olmi's more highly esteemed cousin in pictorial ennui, Michelangelo Antonioni, absconded with neorealism to the metaphysical realm, Olmi plunged back to earth. To wit: his new film, Terra Madre, is the official documentary of the 2006 Slow Food conference in Turin. A strange hybrid of educational film and poetic reverie, Terra Madre leaves polemics to the conference participants. Olmi's presence is felt in the digressive close-ups of soil, plants, faces and hands. In a beguiling sequence midway through the film, his camera studies the ramshackle space left behind by a self-sufficient hermit. Does the director see himself in the story of this man who found the world in a small plot of life and tended his own garden for decades? Regardless, the "Life's Work" retrospective at the PFA is an abundant harvest.
LIFE'S WORK: THE CINEMA OF ERMANNO OLMI
Sept. 25Oct. 30, $5.50$9.50
Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.
(510) 642-5249, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu