Film Review: Terra Madre

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Berlinale Special
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BERLIN -- Ever since 1978 when he burst into full view on the international scene with the magnificent "Tree of the Wooden Clogs," 77-year-old Italian auteur Ermanno Olmi has been known as the enraptured cinematic poet of peasant life, life lived close to, and in harmony with, the earth.

In this new documentary centered around the international Slow Food movement, which began in Italy, Olmi shows that he has lost none of his passion or poetry.

While prospects for theatrical release seem remote, the film is a must-see for festival programrs concerned in any way with issues of globalization and sustainability. It should also have a healthy life in ancillary markets, especially DVD.

The documentary is loosely structured around two gigantic events called "Terra Madre," hosted by the Slow Food movement, in 2006 and 2008. More than 6,000 cooks, farmers, shepherds, and fishermen from more than 130 countries gathered to celebrate what has become an impassioned, worldwide movement away from globalized, destructive corporate farming back to the local variety that bolsters the earth's productivity rather than merely exploiting and denuding it.

Most of the first half of the film is interspersed with clips from various speeches and local ethnic performances given during the two events, with Olmi's crew following up on the specifics of various fascinating initiatives, such as the International Seed Bank that has been established deep inside an island north of Norway to protect more than 4 million seed samples. Poetic interludes intoned on the soundtrack by Italian actor Omero Antonutti give a pleasing mythic aspect to the whole.

We move around various places in Italy and India, as advocates speak movingly of the "new enlightenment" that will come from learning to live with less, rather than any sense of deprivation. The local folk music that accompanies these sketches is stirring and offers strong evidence for the ultimate unity of the amazing diversity of our world. An emotional high point comes when a high schooler from Massachusetts speaks to the group about the hugely productive garden he and his friends have set up at their school, and the immense crowd goes wild when he promises that "we will be the generation that reunites mankind with the earth."

The last part of the film is the strongest, though some impatient viewers may find themselves squirming a bit. Here, after having established the economic and political context of food, the substance that unites us all, Olmi leaves behind all dialogue in a lengthy and gorgeous paean to the earth and its potential plenty, as he wordlessly follows the days of a peasant from the preparation of the earth to the lusty enjoyment of what he has grown himself. The myriad close-ups of birds and fruit and bees and sprouting seeds, and finally the heavens themselves, is pure Terrence Malick at his best, and here "Terra Madre" soars.

Production: Cineteca Bologna
Cast: Carlo Petrini, Omero Antonutti (narrator) and others
Director: Ermanno Olmi
Screenwriter: Ermanno Olmi
Producer: Gian Luca Farinelli
Director of photography: Giulio Ciarambino, Giacomo Gatti
Production designer: Francesco Pappalardo
Editor: Paolo Cottignola
Sales: Cineteca di Bologna
No rating, 78 minutes