ERMANNO OLMI, the son of peasants, made a movie about peasants. That was more than a dozen years ago. "The Tree of Wooden Clogs," after winning international prizes, was shown here briefly, and so far as I know it was the last movie of Olmi's to come here.
The Italian film industry, like Japan's, Britain's, Sweden's, France's and India's, fell on hard times and has stayed there. Even the greatest names in cinema -- Fellini, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa, and many others of a slightly lesser rank -- have difficulty getting the money to make movies.
Olmi has disappeared from cinemas in this country, after several movies won him recognition, including the earlier "Il Posto" ("The Job").
He wrote, directed and photographed "The Tree of Wooden Clogs." It was shot in 16mm, which says something about his background as a documentary filmmaker (a preference for lighter, more flexible, less obtrusive 16mm equipment) but also how much he needed to keep costs down.
Olmi worked in a factory, and graduated to making industrial films and documentaries. It shows. His movies are minutely observed and understated. They are understated like most popular movies today are overstated, though not quite that badly. Phony dramatics are absent. Some critics found the films lacking in "excitement."
It depends on what you call excitement. "The Tree of Wooden Clogs" runs just over three hours. Olmi uses for the most part, or maybe entirely, real farm workers. It is about work, peasant work, caught in a vise between harsh realities and unrelenting demands by land owners. This is an age-old story, and in Olmi's hands is it subtly political.
The peasants are powerless. Like all farmers they are at the mercy of fluctuations of weather, like all of us at the mercy of fate (deaths in families, deaths of prized animals, births: "another mouth to feed"), like the majority in all times, all ages, at the mercy of those who possess power (the landlords, in this case).
Two-thirds of what they grow goes to the land owner. They huddle in quarters not much different from the adjacent stables. In the main house the landed family listens to a piano recital. The peasants gather in the lamplight to hear tales.
They are highly superstitious, religious and uneducated. The movie begins when the local priest gently insists that since God has granted a couple's young son the gift of intelligence, it is their duty to allow him to attend the village school. But children work. Reluctantly, they agree. They are cowed by the priest. It will be their undoing.
This takes place at the turn of the century, a time of social unrest, in Lombardy in northern Italy, north of Milan, a place of social unrest. At a village carnival, an orator demands social equality. The message goes in one ear and out the other of celebrating peasants. Whatever it is the man says, it is too far-fetched even to imagine.
At the center of attention are several families and episodes particular to them and general to all the others. A fatherless family struggles to stay out of the orphanage. A harvest of grain is weighed and apportioned. A communal pig is slaughtered. A family's oldest daughter is courted in the withdrawing light of evening lanes, and marries. A wise old peasant teaches his tiny granddaughter his trick for raising early tomatoes. Another finds a gold coin, hides it, loses it, goes nuts. A tiny boy walks from the compound to school and back on tiny wooden shoes.
The only contacts with the world beyond are the carnival pitchmen and speakers and a riverboat trip by the newlyweds to Milan. Around a bend on the river, smoke plumes loft over the horizon; there are murmurs of social troubles. In town the couple witness militia gallop past to quell demonstrations. It makes them wonder.
When the little boy's wooden shoe splits, the despairing father sneaks out and cuts down a tree. He stays all night forming new shoes. Much later the seignior notices the missing tree. His bailiff investigates, the father confesses, and at a moment's notice the family is evicted. They pack their few household things on a cart and leave at night, the other peasants unprotesting, fearful shadows trapped behind windows looking out at the world and its swift, cruel justice.
Olmi's story is simple. It is told truly, realistically, subtly and sophisticatedly. Finally, it is a majestic unfolding.
The stories employed by Atom Egoyan, working in Canadian films, are also simple. The difference is that they are told unrealistically, perhaps surrealistically, with much up-to-the-minute sophistication. One candidate for their chosen dimension is the psychological.
Egoyan's fashionable preoccupation with the conflict of inner and outer realities and how these are reflected in and shaped by movies, television, video, the swarm of modern images, is perfectly all right. The crucial difference is that they are wildly pretentious.
"Family Viewing" is about borderline sexual practices past and present by an unpleasant, rude and surly father whose son, while he secretly shares the father's current mistress, strives to remove his grandmother from a nursing home in Toronto. We piece this together from scenes in the "present," from videotapes of the past, and from glimpses from surveillance cameras, TV and other video sources.
In "Speaking Parts," the more successful of the two, an aspiring actor on the housekeeping staff of a Toronto hotel meets and auditions for a guest screenwriter. He does more than change towels at the hotel. His boss uses him on the side for female guests. Another thread is an obsessive young woman who stalks him at work and on video (his bit-part movies). The main idea is a moral crisis.
Again, video phones, video memories, interactive television, movies, movies on video intersect to shape and affect what happens.
As a theoretical idea, Egoyan's is interesting. Terribly annoying are the pretentiousness mannerisms signaling intellectual content, from the long (I mean long) drawn-out shots, the performances creaking under "significant" pauses (it makes Harold Pinter, the master of unspoken significance, look like Noel Coward), and the truly awful cueing music.
Why bother with them? Well, for one, Egoyan could be interesting, though it would mean abandoning all the cinematic, intellectual embroidery. For another, he has an interesting stock company of actors. Mainly, though, it's Gabrielle Rose. She's an actor of strength and mature beauty capable of carrying anyone's film given half a chance. She's wonderful in both of these against pretty steep odds.