Beautifully written and directed by Italy’s 80-year-old Ermanno Olmi, and gorgeously photographed by his son, Fabio, Il villaggio di cartone is a spare, mysterious, deeply moving parable about a group of “illegal aliens” from Africa who, seeking sanctuary from the police, occupy a defunct church whose 80-year-old priest, despite its deconsecration, refuses to vacate it, having known no other home since his ordination. Before the arrival of the immigrants, which include a wounded man and a fatherless, out-of-wedlock newborn, the priest speaks aloud to himself to assuage loneliness and ameliorate God’s overwhelming silence. The priest’s lifelong crisis of faith, which he may have thought that entering the priesthood would help resolve, now spurs him into action, not only by his extending charity to his unexpected guests, but by risking criminal prosecution and imprisonment for confronting authorities in their defense. Olmi, himself, came out of retirement to make this, his most haunting film—and one that illustrates poet Alfred Tennyson’s dictum “merit lives from man to man,/ And not from man, O Lord, to thee.”
The film’s opening passage, the dismantling of the church, includes the “grounding” by crane of a suspended painted statue of the crucified Christ, which twists around and around in space while being lowered: with the camera underneath looking up, an agonizing image that itself evokes the crucifixion of Jesus, suggesting a re-crucifixion of Jesus. Indeed, Olmi seems to capture fabulously heightened imagery such as this effortlessly: the sea over which the immigrants have traveled impresses us, for example, in inserts, as the Sea of Faith, of Hope. One might say that specific imagery thus access the “larger picture,” the essence and import of something as well as its surface appearance. This remarkable procedure extends to the shots of the immigrants inside the darkened church—and even to the sound of the torrential rain out of which they come, which seems thus to encapsulate the whole ordeal of their trek in search of a “more decent life.”
The rain, of course, underscores the vulnerability of these pioneers; Olmi therefore identifies with them—startlingly so, when the most assertive among them, a forceful young woman, articulates his own sociopoliticoeconomic analysis: “The wealth of the few is paid by the poverty of the many.”
At the last, the immigrants return to the sea to move on to France. “Home” is always somewhere up ahead—even for the priest, who remarks at one point that he has begun his return journey home. In the meantime, we all “occupy” rather than “inhabit” wherever we happen to be.
Michael Lonsdale and Rutger Hauer are both fine as the priest and his former assistant; they move us along, but it is the black actors, all of them unfamiliar to me, who move us to the depth of our souls.
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