Last year’s World War I centenary produced a number of commemorations and special events but few films. One filmmaker who found inspiration in a war his own father fought is Ermanno Olmi. Showing once again that he is among Italy’s most masterful and humanistic directors, he evokes the terror of combat in the short but effective Greenery Will Bloom Again (Torneranno i prati). The nonsensical English title doesn’t do justice to this rigorous story and would sound far better in a more literal translation like “The Meadows Will Return.” Completed last fall, the film enjoyed a brief release in Italy and had some playdates in the US and UK before landing in Berlin as a Berlinale Special. Positive critical response could help bring it to more international audiences.
Photographed by the trusty Fabio Olmi in such drained color that most (not all) of the shots seem to be in black and white, the story is set in a cold mountain bunker on the Northeastern front, so close to the Austrian trenches that the Italian soldiers “can almost hear them breathe”. Their outpost is buried in deep snow and the dirty, bedraggled men are forced to sleep on boards in the freezing cold.
The fuse is lit by the arrival of a major, who tells the feverish captain that he must follow a senseless, suicidal order. In the tense face-off that follows, the captain disdainfully strips himself of his own rank. The bunker is bombarded, and a retreat is ordered. The dead are buried in the snow, where they will wait for the spring thaw.
Though lacking the dazzling narrative complexity of his two previous anti-war films, The Profession of Arms about the fervent Papal commander Giovanni de’ Medici and the Chinese fantasy Singing Behind the Screens, this harrowing drama follows the minimalist path to devastating effect. The tension rises palpably scene by scene. There is nothing new here, no great insights into the suffering of soldiers at the front that hasn’t been shown elsewhere, but the intensity of the central scenes is riveting, almost shocking.
The actors are so bundled up and swathed in wool that only their smudged faces are visible, yet each is highly individual and communicates a different reaction to the God-forsaken situation he finds himself in. Many of the enlisted men are simple farmers; one is a miner. Several share a bit of their lives in an aside to the camera. Olmi’s screenplay foregoes the standard division of characters into good and evil, friends and foes, as when a Neapolitan soldier stands on a hill at night singing piercing love songs for both armies to hear.
The film also avoids allotting easy blame. The relationship of deep friendship and respect between the bad-news major, played by the film’s only star Claudio Santamaria, and the exhausted captain (Francesco Formichetti) is surprisingly human. No voice is raised. When the major leaves behind his young, inexperienced lieutenant (Alessandro Sperduti) to take the captain’s place, it seems like the boy is being set up for disaster, but Olmi doesn’t waste precious screen time on cliches. The film lasts just a concise 78 minutes.
The final tagline, “War is an ugly beast that wanders the earth and never comes to a halt,” sums up the spirit of it all.
Production companies: Cinemaundici, Ipotesi Cinema in association with RAI Cinema
Cast: Claudio Santamaria, Alessandro Sperduti, Francesco Formichetti, Andrea Di Maria, Camillo Grassi, Niccolo Senni, Domenico Benetti, Andrea Benetti
Director, Screenwriter: Ermanno Olmi
Producers: Luigi Musini, Elisabetta Olmi
Executive producer: Elisabetta Olmi
Director of photography: Fabio Olmi
Production designer: Giuseppe Pirrotta
Costume designer: Andrea Cavalletto
Editor: Paolo Cottignola
Music: Paolo Fresu
Casting: Alessandra Gor
Sales: Rai Com
No rating, 78 minutes