I am adding the entry below to my 100 Greatest Films from Italy, Greece, Spain & Portugal List.
Austere, sad, overwhelming, Ermanno Olmi’s Il mestiere delle armi is one of the great war films. Revolving around Giovanni de Medici, who led papal troops in Charles V’s early sixteenth-century war against the Pope, it owes something to Roberto Rossellini’s present-day histories and the cinema of Peter Watkins. The practice of war has shifted, from bayonets to firepower. Captain de Medici himself was taken down by the newfangled artillery and died at 28. The film ends on an historical note: the plea that cannons should be outlawed for wartime use. But, as we know, even worse weaponry followed.
The opening long-held shot is brilliant: a head shot where we cannot see the human being underneath his metal face mask—alien, estranged, unnatural: emblematic of war itself. Later, the process of making cannonballs is patiently shown, powerfully reiterating the message. But by far the film’s most compelling aspect consists of its gray, fog-entrenched, melancholy landscapes, the battlefields of lost souls whom combat divides from their humanity. Olmi’s son, Fabio, contributes haunting color cinematography.
An already fractious Italy is ripe for the invasion of mercenary German troops; but war’s agony supercedes political considerations. The aim is victory, which is to say, clarity; but war extends ambiguity. Here is a film that exemplifies “the fog of war.” Soldiers have chosen their jobs or roles; they haven’t been impressed into service. Yet does anyone really choose such an unfathomable and unexpectedly shifting workplace or its inconceivably horrific activities, and its deaths?
Indeed, the film begins at the end, with Giovanni de Medici’s death, which it unravels, deconstructs. The implication is that this outcome was inevitable. The condottiere’s fate could not be diverted by his status of hero. War devours heroes for the sake of its own myth.
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