Olmi, Szabó: Old Masters, New Stories By Dragan Jovićević

in 20th Athens Panorama of European Cinema

by Dragan Jovicevic

Several of the programs of the film festival at Athens’ “Panorama of the European film” are dedicated to old filmmakers as well as to the new aspirants of European cinema. Along with the unknown directors, we find new films from Emir Kusturica, Ang Lee, Brett Leonard, Shekhar Kapur and many others. In the main competitive program, many of the new directors’ films are followed by two masters of the seventh art: Hungarian director István Szabó and Italian director Ermanno Olmi. A most interesting fact that unites these two masters is that they both, in their later periods of life, decided to make social comedies with tragic endings: Szabó with The Relatives (Rokonok) and Olmi with One Hundred Nails (Centochiodi).

When a scandal brings down the attorney general of a prosperous community near Budapest, István Kopjáss, a man with a clean record and impeccable ethics, is invited to take over in The Relatives. While his wife is wary of the appointment, István is convinced he can bring positive change. But he soon learns how challenging his job will be when the mayor persuades him to abandon a new tax schedule that would lower assessments for the poor. István also discovers that everyone he meets claims to be some sort of distant relative, wanting some sort of special consideration that he can’t refuse.

One Hundred Nails attempts to weave its narrative around a contemporary figure that harbors the humanity of Christ. In a startling prologue, the overseer of an ancient library screams out in horror and summons the police when he discovers that some degenerate has nailed 100 rare manuscripts to the floor with giant railroad spikes — similar to the ones used to nail Jesus to the cross. As the authorities conduct their investigation, the film then flashes back to events that unfolded over course of the previous day.

Though these two films are entirely thematically different, there is much to link them. Both Szabó and Olmi are showing us men coping with the contemporary world, deciding to resist their environments in an unusual way. As they fight, they are inevitably destroyed. Szabó’s hero is a violent young man whom society exploits, and yet offers him the freedom to do as he wishes within the system. Olmi’s hero is a devoted man of principle, almost an ascetic type who sacrifices his career in order to stay faithful to his own moral code.

Both Sabo and Olmi rely on many recognizable themes from the New Testament and the Greek and Roman classical period, trying to tell a story about the transition and mistrust of contemporary society. Both directors were, of course, inclined to similar approaches in their earlier works, with stories and characters that made their films unusual and gave them a unique author`s hallmark. Both films have been beautifully produced, even though they resemble television more than feature films in their structure. Both films star young and recognized actors insufficiently “utilized” in previous works, bringing a special transcendence to their performances here. Lastly, both Szabó and Olmi shot their films with incomplete and superficial screenplays, nonetheless reminding us once again why, for decades, they’ve been known as excellent European film makers!

The Relatives and One Hundred Nails are little film gems, a must in every festival program — as was the case in Athens’ Panorama of European Cinema.