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Four years ago, when the Venice Film Festival invited Ermanno Olmi to accept its prestigious Golden Lion career prize, the distinguished neorealist director turned it down.
It wasn’t as if Olmi was against receiving an award to honor his career: In 1992, for example, Italy’s David di Donatello Awards gave him the Luchino Visconti prize for his body of work, and the Montreal World Film Festival honored him with a lifetime award. The same year Olmi declined his first lifetime honor in Venice, the Locarno Film Festival awarded him the Leopard of Honor.
For Olmi, the first Venice prize was almost too significant, too fraught with meaning to accept.
“I didn’t want to put the bookmark at the end of my career yet,” Olmi recalls. “I said I still had feature films to make.”
The 77-year-old helmer has a long, rewarding relationship with Venice. As a child his impression of Venice was fueled by his railroad worker father, who would frequently speak glowingly about the festival. In 1953, at the age of 22, Olmi was thrilled to attend the event for the first time, despite the fact that his short documentary, “La diga sul ghiaccio,” met with little success. But when he returned six years later with a feature-length project, “Il tempo si e fermato” (Time Stood Still), the young director was starting to turn heads.
“When I first came to the Venice Film Festival, it seemed to me I was living a dream, and every time I came back it seemed like I was still in the same dream,” Olmi says.
It’s no wonder Olmi cherishes his memories of Venice — the fest has been very good to him over the years. By 1961, he won a critics’ award for the workplace drama “Il posto” (The Job), then took home a Silver Lion for 1987’s “Lunga vita alla signora” (Long Live the Lady). A year later, he would finally land Venice’s highest prize, the Golden Lion, for “La leggenda del santo bevitore” (The Legend of the Holy Drinker).
Olmi is now dedicating his energy to documentaries, spending time in the mountainous and dramatic northern Italian subregion of Valtellina, where he is working on two separate productions: a wine-related project called “Rupi del vino” (Cliffs of Wine) and “Terra madre” (Mother Earth), which examines the globalization of agriculture. He says his mind is full of ideas for new documentaries, and more ideas keep coming.
In many ways Olmi’s return to the documentary genre brings him full circle. He began his career directing corporate videos for Edison Volta, then a key Italian electric utility and Olmi’s first employer. He made some three dozen early documentaries before focusing the bulk of his career on feature films, establishing himself within the neorealism movement that defined much of Italian cinema in the ’40s and ’50s.
He gained a reputation not only for handing important roles to nonactors — a common practice with his neorealist contemporaries — but also for assuming almost any duty necessary to make a film, from set decoration and costumes to camera work and editing.
Still, Olmi remains best known for a body of work that poetically expresses the day-to-day hardships facing average people, such as “The Tree of Wooden Clogs,” his affecting look at farm life in the late 19th century that took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1978.
So how does the career Golden Lion fit in to such a long, distinguished career?
“It still feels like I’m living in a dream,” Olmi declares. “Now, I suppose, I’m a little closer to waking up from it. The final act is approaching, I know. But it’s still like a dream to me.”
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