It’s unfortunate that realist cinema has earned itself – unfairly, for the most part – a reputation for being tedious. However, Ermanno Olmi, the acclaimed Italian director best known for the three-hour-long peasant epic L’albero degli zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978), is emphatically not a tedious filmmaker. Even his longest and most austere works are rich with cinematic precision, invention and nuance – as well as, quite often, a droll sense of humour applied to his characters’ situations (and the staging thereof). Olmi’s films always seem to be functioning on a deeper, more compelling and even transcendental level.

But in his first feature, Il tempo si è fermato (Time Stood Still, 1959) we find a still-youthful Olmi exploring realist thematic concerns in a slightly more playful mode. Aged 27, having made a handful of industrial short documentaries for his employer – the energy company Edisonvolta – he wrote and directed an original and compellingly realist two-hander set around a remote hydroelectric dam. It is a film arguably influenced not just by his acknowledged neorealist predecessors such as Roberto Rossellini, but also by French neorealists – filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and even Jacques Tati, according to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum: “Like Bresson, he projects a spiritual sense of gravity over his plots […] yet like Tati he is also a master of ‘small’ social observations.”1 At that time, French neorealism had produced dramas as well as comedies, while Italian neorealism had remained steadfastly po-faced until the breakthrough hit I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, Mario Monicelli, 1958), which was released one year prior to Time Stood Still.

Though not a comedy itself, Olmi’s debut nonetheless demonstrated a deft comedic touch from the young director and helped to broaden the horizons of realist cinema. Time Stood Still is the story of Natale (Natale Rossi), a grizzled old worker in the mountains forced to come to terms with Roberto (Roberto Seveso), a member of the younger generation who’s been parachuted in to replace the expected-but-absent fellow old-timer Salvetti (Paolo Quadrubbi) for the otherwise lonely and inhospitable Christmas-break period. It is more a situation than a story: two mismatched characters in isolation, a perfectly respectable scenario for an Italian neorealist chamber drama.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s also about the tension between tradition and modernity, between mid-life malaise and juvenile enthusiasm, and simply between men: the reluctance to show affection, to share secrets, to admit mistakes. As is the case in all of Olmi’s films, the real realism does not rely on the film techniques employed. Time Stood Still is extremely realistic in its depiction of the men’s psychology, demeanour and relations, as well as the setting (real locations, courtesy of Edisonvolta). Equally realistic – viscerally so – is the blizzard that ushers in the film’s third act.

The film is not an example of documentary realism. It is shot simply – Olmi did not approve of elaborate camerawork, or so he claimed later in life, post-Wooden Clogs2 – but with unexpected flashes of technical sophistication in the editing of picture and sound: a modernism that Olmi would indulge more in the following decade, reaching its apex in the highly fragmentary La circostanza (The Circumstance, 1973). The film also (intentionally or otherwise) contains references to other filmmakers’ work: an excursion into the dam’s subterranean interior harks back to Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), while much of the second act – a mild comedy of discomfort as the surly Natale repeatedly rebuffs the amiable Roberto – consists of visual gags verging on the Tatiesque, but grounded by the bleak environs and the emotional realism of the characters.

In light of Olmi’s later denunciation of elaborate camerawork, the first and last shots of the film, in different ways, are somewhat surprising. The film opens on an oddly casual 3/4 profile shot of Natale (playing chequers against an unseen opponent), which, instead of cutting to the matching shot of his colleague/opponent in the expected manner, holds on him for longer than expected, as if the camera itself is reluctant to reveal too much, before not cutting but pulling back on a short dolly track to grudgingly bring the other man into the picture. The film closes with a sweeping pan across the snowy mountainside in the bright morning light following the storm, accompanied by a sentimental violin solo (Natale’s kind of music: sincere, old-fashioned) – but then Roberto’s voice is heard yelling “I am the King of Rock!”, at which point the camera abruptly changes direction, lurching back toward the workers’ cabin as rock music (Roberto’s kind of music) sends us to the end credits.

The use of music throughout the film is surprisingly modern. In the first act, it expresses Natale’s contentment with his daily chores, his hidden food trove, his rabbit trap and his friendship with his outgoing colleague. The music is almost too insistent in these early scenes, too cheerful – as if to drown out Natale’s unspoken, unacknowledged loneliness, far from his wife and child over the Christmas break (a loneliness exacerbated by his disdain for the modern world in which his family resides). Then young Roberto arrives, bringing his own music – raucous rock’n’roll in the morning and sleepy minor-key jazz in his quieter moments of misgiving. Roberto’s arrival – this young stranger taking the place of Natale’s old friend, who has been called away to care for his wife – also silences Natale’s music. Instead, the radio plays silly and cartoonish novelty songs, serving only to aggravate tensions in the cabin. Roberto wants to be friends with the older Natale, but Natale’s content to sulk. Over the next day, though, Natale warms to his new colleague, showing him around the work site; once this new friendship is formed, new music is heard on the soundtrack.

And then comes the avalanche – following which, there is no more music, only the howling blizzard outside the cabin. Now the two men must sleep in the same room, must make conversation. The cabin loses power, then heat, and then the windows break. The men take refuge in a nearby mountainside church. There, Roberto quickly succumbs to a fever and Natale nurses him back to health. He lights a candle in front of a fresco of the Madonna and Child, and then we dissolve to light. Morning. The storm has ended. Cue violin solo.

This relatively austere third act comes the closest to pure realist cinema, closest to the unadorned and intensive objectivity for which Olmi would become so well known later in his career: no music, no extraneous camerawork; just the human drama, the philosophical questions and, of course, the spirituality that this master of realist cinema always felt deeply and communicated so keenly. But I would argue that it is most effective here because of what came before – the moments of visual fun, the noir-tinged tour of the tunnels, the earlier aggressive musicality. When the avalanche comes and takes all that away, the effect is disquieting both to the characters and to the viewer. Some things get taken away, and something new and pure is given.

• • •

Il tempo si è fermato (Time Stood Still, 1959 Italy 83 mins)

Prod. Co: 22 Dicembre, Edisonvolta Prod: Alberto Soffientini Dir: Ermanno Olmi Scr: Ermanno Olmi Phot: Carlo Bellero Ed: Carla Colombo Mus: Pier Emilio Bassi

Cast: Natale Rossi, Roberto Seveso, Paolo Quadrubbi

Endnotes:

  1. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Problems of Classification: A Few Traits in Four Films by Ermanno Olmi,” Jonathan Rosenbaum author website, 26 June 2017, https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2017/06/problems-of-classification-a-few-traits-in-four-films-by-ermanno-olmi
  2. “In filmmaking, too much importance is given to the camera … We are too in thrall to it.” Ermanno Olmi, quoted in Pasquale Iannone, “Ermanno Olmi Obituary: A Maestro of Italian Post-Neorealist Cinema”, Sight & Sound, 21 May 2018, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/obituaries/ermanno-olmi-maestro-italian-post-neorealist-cinema