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SEARCHING FOR THE STARCHILD
CAMMINACAMMINA AND ERMANNO OLMI
by Harlan Kennedy
For Mary Grace.
He hated war, and cruelty, and hypocrisy, and above all he hated dogma – except that hate is not the right word for the sense of sad revulsion that he felt; he thought hate itself a kind of dogma.
– Jacob Bronowski, speaking about Albert Einstein, in The Ascent of Man.
BEWARE OF THE DOGMA. This warning should be posted every time an artist attempts to spring a religious myth from intellectual captivity. Dogma is the snarling hound of orthodoxy that guards these myths; but there are other stern sentinels. One is sentiment – the Biblical picture books we all grew up with, the Nativity plays and Christmas mangers and gaily painted Madonnas. Another is the social prohibition against giving offense. Why needlessly set off the alarms of your neighbor's closely guarded sensibility and beliefs?
Ermanno Olmi's Camminacammina is to doctrinaire thought
and traditional religion what Houdini was to jails. In its theatrical
version (the full TV series runs four and a half hours), the film
takes 160 minutes' worth of humane and joyful liberties with the Journey of
the Magi. It's no wonder that initially the film got an adult rating in its
The result is pure delight –
and a truly believable, "everyday" account of a legend long lost to
piety. Now, more than a year after its world premiere at
Ever since Il Posto (The Sound of Trumpets) in 1961, Olmi has been the evangelist of shining redemptive Simplicity
in Italian cinema. In the late Fifties, while Italy's pioneer postwar neorealists stormed off in wildly divergent directions –
into the Baroque (Luchino Visconti)
or the Fantastic (Federico Fellini), or the
Austerely Chic (Michelangelo Antonioni), into
chocolate-box Romantic Comedy (Vittorio De Sica) or cathode-ray High Culture (Roberto Rossellini) – Olmi was like a late arrival on the track. Garbed in
expectant smile and running shoes, he suddenly discovered he had the whole
neorealist stadium to himself. After ten features and a quarter century, the
53-year-old native of
Olmi's first feature was Il
Since that debut Olmi has successfully dodged the omnivorous maws of
commercialism. The one exception was the film he made for Harry (James Bond) Saltzman in 1965:
In Il Posto and I Fidanzati (The Fiancés, 1963), he danced on top of a pin. In the first film he choreographed the miniaturist horror and comedy of city life, from the howl of traffic to the pain under the skin of office clerks. In The Fiances his subject was the stoicism of emotional misery, chiming through the letters between a girl in the North and her chemical-worker fiancé posted to the South. If these early Olmi films were sometimes like Chinese water torture with entr'actes of rueful comedy, the four movies of the director's middle period spike neorealism with sharp new drops of allegory.
In Un Certo Giorno (One Fine Day, 1969), a moral crime (the hero's adultery) meets an apparently unconnected punishment (his trial for manslaughter after running down a pedestrian), and Olmi begins to speculate on the divinity that rough-hews our ends, however we attempt to reshape them.
In the brilliantly complex and deadpan I Recuperanti (The Scavengers, 1970), a salvage worker for a railway company after World War II gouges buried metals and unexploded bombs from the earth. Olmi allegorizes the yin and yang of human creative and destructive instincts, closely wrapped together "under the skin."
Like Il Posto,
Durante L'Estate (In the
Summertime, 1971) is set in workingclass
And in La Circonstanza (The Circumstance, 1974), four neorealist short stories – the satellite tales of a mother, father, son, and daughter living out their respective crises one summer – form a wholly surreal quadrille when the stories begin to elide and collide. Job anxiety, hospital visits, teenage love, birth, a summer thunderstorm, the everyday and the Olmiesque, become apocalyptic by the clustering together of parts and the revelatory rhyming of details.
The Olmi progress is thus from single-strand stories to multi-weave tapestries, culminating in the dazzling plurality of plot and theme in L'Albero Degli Zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978). Here, even more than in the Biblical documentaries Olmi made for RAI-TV in the Sixties (St Anthony, Dopo Secoli, Storie di Giovanni), you find the tap-root of the religious concerns that burgeon epically in Camminacammina.
In Wooden Clogs, "Christianity" is humanism lit from inside. There one finds courageous and self-sacrificing loyalty, as in a worker's cutting down of the landlord's tree to make a shoe for his son. One finds a view of love that seamlessly binds up Eros, Agape, and procreation in a single, simple honeymoon journey: The newlywed couple travel by barge to a convent, where they spend their wedding night, and receive from the Mother Superior the gift of a bounding baby.
The film's humanism is also illuminated by a sense of community that is neither stuffy nor starchily idealized. Indeed, it can be primitive, daffy, purblind – as when an old farmer screams with demented animism at his horse for "stealing" a coin he had hidden in its hoof and then can't find the next day. The charlatanism that can hold sway among a simple, gullible people is suggested in the awed and credulous attention vouchsafed by the peasants to their evening storytellers.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs is about a community marooned in space and time. Camminacammina saddles up a similar community and sends it forth into the wilderness, opening up all its uncertainties and fallibilities to the air, like a wound to oxygen. Doubt and faith must travel hand in hand, Olmi is saying. Only by doubting can man quest and question and find answers. Only by having faith can he summon the courage to advance on the stepping stones of new hypotheses toward the firm ground of new truth.
"Camminacammina," explains Ermanno Olmi, "is a little chant you might use to a child. It means: Keep walking, keep walking!"
A couple dozen peasant
villagers dress for a pageant. Then, without further fuss, comment, or even a
last-reel return to modernity, they are whisked into the real quasi-Biblical
past, there to spend the rest of the film. Camminacammina
works like one of those
Camminacammina becomes the story of the villagers' trek in pursuit of a star. In this journey through desert and valley and mountain, many drop out along the way, for reasons that are sometimes risible ("I've got to get home before dark"), sometimes practical ("I've got to get back to till the fields"), sometimes sad ("As the richest man here I can't afford to make this trip"). Many others who stay the route wonder quite where they are going and why. And just a few have a quenchless faith in the journey's end that brooks no obstacle.
Though he sets it in an eclectic past, Olmi new-mints the spirit of the Magi story so that it is comical-quotidian tender for today. Thus the star itself becomes a whizzing light that passes overhead with a throbbing, high-pitched whine, like an Old Testament version of a UFO. And thus the prophet and astronomer Mel (Melchior, the first of the Magi), who leads the villagers off in pursuit of the savior-king whose coming the star is thought to presage, is played by Alberto Fumagalli as a gentle, burly pedant with a singsong voice, who's caught in a constant tug of generations with his boy servant Rupo (Antonio Cucciare).
Rupo is the gadfly Olmi has set to buzz around the fat immobility of Mel's search for certainty in an uncertain world. The boy won't take the "Because I told you sos' of grown-up ritual for an answer. The "fallen woman" who comes to Mel in an early scene, wanting to expiate her sins with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, prompts Rupo to scurry rebelliously away, crying: "The lamb hasn't done anything. Why can't she risk her own neck?"
For Olmi, man is the maker of every morality, the shrine of every religion, the measure of every universe. We first see Mel and Rupo sitting outside at night painting a map of the stars on a huge animal hide – as if the cosmos could be contained within the skin of every being. And the color scheme of the painted hide (dark blue and brown, speckled with gold) spreads out to become a heraldic assertion throughout the movie. Blue skies, brown earth. The gold-edged blue hood worn by Rupo. Even the local soldiery, with their brown leather surcoats and tunics of deep blue.
Olmi says this: If human beings contain the universe (or the perceptions through which alone the universe can exist for them), so they also contain the power of moral judgment. And Olmi sets his satiric sights at the folly of personifying Good and Evil as if they live outside us, whether in the form of angels or devils, or inviolable tablets, or infallible encyclicals. Or any human institutions – ethical, political, economic – which claim omniscience.
The most energizing and endearing quality of Olmi's film is its tinpot linearity. Onward, onward the pilgrims tread, accompanied by the changing landscapes and a brassily warbling march theme. Each challenge in their journey becomes a knockabout Rubicon, rife with credible human doubts. A river that Mel urges his people to cross prompts the elderly and cautious Centurion (Eligio Martellacci) to question, "But why should we cross it? We're quite happy on this side!"
Later, a rickety wooden bridge over a pocket-size gorge becomes a mock-allegorical test of faith. On one side are Mel and the pilgrims, girding up their courage for the vertiginous crossing. (The drop is all of four feet.) On the other, a rich merchant garbed all in gold summoning up his nerve to traverse the chasm. Seekers after spiritual and material fulfillment eyeball each other across the trembling span, wondering if their faith will hold.
Even when the pilgrims prove the readier to cross – they have only the Spirit to lose, and that is weightless – Olmi's camera catches Mel lingering nervously back until other feet have tested the boards first. Then he quickly bundles himself across, trying to save face and faith by not being quite the last.
There is a majestic irony slowly hatched by Olmi's linear and penny-plain treatment of the tale: that the final destination of this ever-onward journey is spectacularly vague and chimerical. How will they know Him when and if they find Him – this holy being, a celestial king, a traveler on a beam of light, whose coming will restore goodness and justice to the world?
The answer is that, when the crunch comes, they don't quite know him. They have climbed up from valley into mountains; they have joined up with two other Magi kings and their followers; they have re-routed themselves from one promising castle to another... and finally they discover, cowering bunched and timid against fortified walls at dead of night, a father, mother, and child who seem likely candidates. (Well, not likely exactly. But the only ones around.) With the pilgrims getting restless all about him and stamina for the journey clearly running out, Mel turns to his fellow Wise Men and says, "At this point we have no choice but certainty."
– the writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, art director, and
costume designer of Camminacammina – is one
Italian filmmaker who lives out the ideals he evangelizes. Like De Sica or Antonioni, he condemns
the harshness and alienation of city life. Like Paolo and Vittorio
Taviani, he's fascinated by the integrity and tough
simplicity of peasant life. And like Pier Paolo Pasolini
in his story-cycle trilogy of Decameron,
But while other filmmakers are content to be soothsayers, Olmi girds up his ideals and acts them out. In production, Camminacammina virtually became the collective pilgrimage that it portrays. Cameras, lights, and equipment were lugged over arduous terrain, and every member of cast and crew was encouraged to hurl his ideas into the common melting pot.
In May 1983, as if in imitation
of a medieval scuola, or craft guild,
Olmi founded a cinema workshop for aspiring
filmmakers in the town of
That May was a busy month for Olmi: he made a journey of his own, to the
"I felt I had gone as far as I could with a certain kind of realism, of social painting, that produced The Fiancés or Un Certo Giorno, or even The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Today I'm more interested in finding a unified vision, something that goes back to our roots in history, in legend. For me, so many films and so much television today are just a way of 'marking time,' of making conversation while the world is in upheaval all around us.
"In Camminacammina I've tried to deal with truth through myth – not to change one of our oldest stories but to make it live, to make it recognizable again. Nativity plays, the story of the Magi, they are part of a child's fantasy world. They certainly were of mine. And at the same time they were very real. So much of that reality, that freshness, goes when we become adults and religion is intellectualized and institutionalized for us.
"Of course Christianity should be 'made sense of' for grownups. What I dislike is the prevarications and dogmas, the sophistry, of formalized religion. 'What we should keep is the simple, childlike intuition of what is true. And that goes for everything, not just religion. Camminacammina is about all of life, not just for believers in New Testament Christianity.
"So the Magi are a prototype of today's rationalizers and scholars. They're intellectually qualified for what they do, but in practice they don't measure up to the task set out for them. Just as military history is written by the victors, religious history is written by the survivors. And you have to be crafty, sometimes even cowardly, to survive!"
Near the castle where the Magi find the mother and child, they notice soldiers massing on the hills, and Mel later pretends to have been warned by an angel in a dream to leave. The other Magi agree to obey the warning, and even to have had the same dream. Olmi illustrates that the search for certainty is fraught with fear and doubt. Mel is chided by a fellow pilgrim for deserting the baby savior king under the pretext of building churches to celebrate the arrival of God on Earth. The pilgrim says that the Magi's temples will "not celebrate his birth but his death."
"My characters go on a journey," Olmi told me, "a journey to find someone who will bring justice and goodness into their lives – a new redemption. But when they find him, they cannot believe that the Redeemer they have been led to by the Heavenly sign, the star, is a mere child. So they turn around and head home, and many are worse off than before. More skeptical, more despairing. But for the lucky few there has been enlightenment. What the story tells us is that there's a need to be reborn, to become children again and thence to grow into new men and women. Today more than ever, when we live in an age of false certainties and hypocrisy and instant wisdom, we need to shed these things and become as children once more."
The theme of rebirth – of re-inventing life, its values and feelings – is at the core of all Olmi's work. Witness the recurring motifs: car accidents (Un Certo Giorno, La Circonstanza), whereby death or its imminence sting a character into a new revaluing of life; birth or babyhood (La Circonstanza, Tree of Wooden Clogs); the tabula rasa of the country, or even the suburb, versus the stupefying perceptual tyranny of the city (Il Posto, Durante L'Estate); and the frequency of characters whose job is in remaking or reshaping or salvaging man's natural landscape (The Scavengers, the map-makers of Durante L'Estate and Camminacammina).
"The world we have created
in Camminacammina is imaginary,"
he said. "From the props and costumes onward, right up to the dialogue
and actions. But though we invented all this, the film still has, I hope, a
kind of fidelity – to our idea of what the time may have been like.
With our costumes, for instance, we did not hire a professional designer.
Instead we devised them ourselves, and came up with simple, bright, roughstitched, primitive costumes, which we hand-wove
and colored with vegetable dyes. The landscape too we chose because the
region of Volterra in northern
Camminacammina is cast completely from non-professional actors. As often before, Olmi has resolutely refused to have either star names in his cast or, on his soundtrack, the perennial Italian panacea of professional post-dubbing. "I auditioned for the cast simply by meeting and talking to people from the area," Olmi said, "discovering their moods, their opinions, their idiosyncrasies. And I based their roles in the film on that. Once they were cast, I let them use their own voices. The people of Biblical times did not talk like dubbers at a film studio."
When it came to devising the script, what were the main sources for the film's story line?
"We drew from St. Matthew," Olmi explained, "and the New Testament, of course, but also from other texts and prophetic writings. From Gadla Adam, for example, who narrates the journey as an ascent into a high mountain. From Marco Polo's Milione. And there are also sources like the tenth-century Mas'udi, who writes how the king's messengers – the three Wise Men of our story – were given a loaf of bread by Mary, and then when they left how they buried it under a stone. This we depicted in the film, where it marks the parting of the ways for the different caravans of pilgrims. The buried bread becomes the central point of a cross, as the different Wise Men and their followers move away toward different compass points."
With such an eclectic genealogy
of sources, the wonder of Camminacammina
is that it never seems
cumbrous, but rather feather light and full of life. This despite a
theatrical running time in
"For the television
version, the early section of the pilgrims' trek contains more individual
stories. For the theaters I've kept all the principal points of the
early section, only relinquishing some little stories and details. The later
part of the film is the same in both versions." Last summer Olmi was back in the editing room, tinkering with the
theatrical version of Camminacammina until
he had honed it to the 145-minute version expected to be shown in
Traditionally, the natural climax and fulfillment of the Journey of the Magi story is the discovery of the Christ child. In Camminacammina the story goes on beyond that, into the slaughter of the innocents, the breaking up of the pilgrimage, the sowing of doubts, and the burial of the bread and the swaddling clothes. Is the film's final coda a statement of pessimism?
"We have to distinguish between Christ and the Church," said Olmi, "between the reality of the one and the hypocrisies and dogmas that have become so much a part of the other. When Mel says at the end of the film, 'We shall build temples to celebrate the coming of God on Earth,' he is answered, 'You, now, in your temples shall celebrate above all his death.' Christ appeared to us as an infant, celebrating the magic of birth and hope. But the Church builds its reign of fear and moral tyranny on death, on the threat or promise of the afterlife. Thus the Church becomes the death of any voluntary feeling of faith and the wonder and astonishment of true religion.
"Christ came to us in the form of an ordinary human being – not as a magician or a superman or a dictator. And thus he made ordinary humanity itself divine. And in Camminacammina the boy Rupo is an example of what we can be. Mel believes in the God who is outside and above us, making inviolable and unquestioned laws. But Rupo won't accept any law without questioning it first, without validating it for himself. He says to Mel, 'Why do you always ask me things and then say I can't understand?' That is the man to rejoice in and admire – the man who insists on understanding!
"So it doesn't matter if we're talking here about Christianity or any other force in our lives – political, economic, moral, scientific. If you let someone tell you what to do and do not question it, that is a kind of death. Unthinking acceptance, submission, obedience to dogma, these are all on the side of death. But innocence, astonishment, questioning, doubt, these are the sacraments of life. I say, 'Camminacammina!' Keep walking, keep walking! For while there is movement, there is life!"
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE SEPT-OCT 1984 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.