The Cardboard Village: Venice Film Review

An elderly priest confronts the modern world of illegal immigration in a slight tale full of Christian symbolism.

Michael Lonsdale, Rutger Hauer and Alessandro Haber star in director-screenwriter Ermanno Olmi's tale filled with Christian symbolism.

Veteran Italian director Ermanno Olmi’s Catholic faith has shaped many of his films in a very direct way, with mixed results. Filmed from an original screenplay, The Cardboard Village lacks the magic touch of fable that made Golden Lion winner The Legend of the Holy Drinker soar on golden wings. The story of an old priest who braves the police to give shelter to a group of African refugees is an uncomfortable mix of overly literal story-telling and Christian symbols. Its journey will most likely end on the small screen after a brief theatrical bow in Italy.

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Michael Lonsdale dons priestly robes as the unnamed pastor of a modern church that is being closed down. He watches in pain and defeat as the paintings and statues are removed from the walls by helmeted workers, along with a life-size crucifix.

Ignoring the reproaches of the sexton (a severe, disapproving Rutger Hauer, another flashback to Holy Drinker), he refuses to leave his life-long home. However, the barren church soon finds a new purpose as a secret refuge for destitute, homeless Africans who have come to Europe in search of a better life.

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Pushing the situation into cliché is the simplistic scripting: a pregnant woman gives birth to an angelic child, a boy and a girl shyly eye each other, and an educated engineer debates with young revolutionaries who evidently plan to become suicide bombers. The film’s truest moment is a long soliloquy in which the priest remembers the temptation of a girl’s eyes, long ago, that almost made him leave the priesthood. 

Alessandro Haber cameos as a tough-minded police chief, whose armed men persecute the immigrants like Roman soldiers. The film’s very fine classical scoring is the work of composer Sofia Gubaidulina.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
Production company: Cinemaundici in association with Rai Cinema, Edison
Cast: Michael Lonsdale, Rutger Hauer, Alessandro Haber, Massimo De Francovich, Irima Pino Viney, Elhadji Ibrahima Faye, Fatima Ali, Samuels Leon Delroy, Fernando Chironda, Souleymane Sow, Linda Keny, Blaise Aurelien Ngoungou Essoua
Director: Ermanno Olmi
Screenwriter: Ermanno Olmi
Producer: Luigi Musini
Director of photography: Fabio Olmi
Production designer: Giuseppe Pirrotta
Music: Sofia Gubaidulina
Costumes: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: Paolo Cottignola
Sales Agent: Rai Trade
87 minutes