by Harlan Kennedy


For Mary Grace.


He hated war, and cruelty, and hypocrisy, and above all he hated dogma – except that hate is not the right word for the sense of sad revulsion that he felt; he thought hate itself a kind of dogma.

– Jacob Bronowski, speaking about Albert Einstein, in The Ascent of Man.




BEWARE OF THE DOGMA. This warn­ing should be posted every time an artist attempts to spring a religious myth from intellectual captivity. Dogma is the snarling hound of orthodoxy that guards these myths; but there are other stern sentinels. One is sentiment – the Bibli­cal picture books we all grew up with, the Nativity plays and Christmas man­gers and gaily painted Madonnas. An­other is the social prohibition against giving offense. Why needlessly set off the alarms of your neighbor's closely guarded sensibility and beliefs?

Ermanno Olmi's Camminacammina is to doctrinaire thought and traditional re­ligion what Houdini was to jails. In its theatrical version (the full TV series runs four and a half hours), the film takes 160 minutes' worth of humane and joyful liberties with the Journey of the Magi. It's no wonder that initially the film got an adult rating in its native Italy for fear of what it might do to the minds of good Christian children. A movie like E. T. can disguise its Resurrection parable in sci-fi clothing and get away without ruffling anyone's psyche. But Olmi shamelessly juggles frozen-in-Scripture details of the St. Matthew account of the Three Wise Men. He also throws into the air gobbets from ancient folklore versions of the story, plus his own impromptu varia­tions.

The result is pure delight – and a truly believable, "everyday" account of a legend long lost to piety. Now, more than a year after its world premiere at Cannes, Olmi's epiphany seems finally headed for the U.S. with a berth at the New York Film Festival.


Ever since Il Posto (The Sound of Trumpets) in 1961, Olmi has been the evangelist of shining redemptive Sim­plicity in Italian cinema. In the late Fif­ties, while Italy's pioneer postwar neorealists stormed off in wildly divergent directions – into the Baroque (Luchino Visconti) or the Fantastic (Federico Fellini), or the Austerely Chic (Michel­angelo Antonioni), into chocolate-box Romantic Comedy (Vittorio De Sica) or cathode-ray High Culture (Roberto Rossellini) – Olmi was like a late arrival on the track. Garbed in expectant smile and running shoes, he suddenly discov­ered he had the whole neorealist sta­dium to himself. After ten features and a quarter century, the 53-year-old native of Bergamo (in Lombardy) is still a "naïf" filmmaker. He believes in a dra­matic palette of primary human motives and emotions.

Olmi's first feature was Il Tempo Si E Fermato (Time Stood Still) in 1959, a dramatized expansion of a documentary he had prepared for his first employers, Edisonvolta. He had worked in the sup­ply office, where he received encour­agement to make documentaries. He had totted up more than 40 by the time he left.

Since that debut Olmi has success­fully dodged the omnivorous maws of commercialism. The one exception was the film he made for Harry (James Bond) Saltzman in 1965: E Venne Un Uomo (A Man Called John). Here Rod Steiger brought Method acting to the Vatican as he shuttled about between stock shots of Pope John XXIII (playing himself). A Man Called John was proba­bly the cinema's most remarkable exam­ple of papal bull prior to Krzysztof Zanussi's even worse pope opera, From a Far Country (1981). On either side of this ecumenical clinker, however, Olmi delicately trailblazed a whole new kind of neorealist cinema.

In Il Posto and I Fidanzati (The Fiancés, 1963), he danced on top of a pin. In the first film he choreographed the mini­aturist horror and comedy of city life, from the howl of traffic to the pain under the skin of office clerks. In The Fiances his subject was the stoicism of emotional misery, chiming through the letters be­tween a girl in the North and her chemi­cal-worker fiancé posted to the South. If these early Olmi films were sometimes like Chinese water torture with en­tr'actes of rueful comedy, the four mov­ies of the director's middle period spike neorealism with sharp new drops of alle­gory.

In Un Certo Giorno (One Fine Day, 1969), a moral crime (the hero's adul­tery) meets an apparently unconnected punishment (his trial for manslaughter after running down a pedestrian), and Olmi begins to speculate on the divinity that rough-hews our ends, however we attempt to reshape them.

In the brilliantly complex and dead­pan I Recuperanti (The Scavengers, 1970), a salvage worker for a railway company after World War II gouges bur­ied metals and unexploded bombs from the earth. Olmi allegorizes the yin and yang of human creative and destructive instincts, closely wrapped together "un­der the skin."

Like Il Posto, Durante L'Estate (In the Summertime, 1971) is set in working­class Milan. A middle-aged map-maker with job problems meets a young girl   his idealized "principessa" – with boy­friend problems. The film develops into a tenderly hypnotic fugue between two different frenzies, a redemptive meet­ing between heart and mind, a platonic passion between opposites.

And in La Circonstanza (The Circum­stance, 1974), four neorealist short sto­ries – the satellite tales of a mother, fa­ther, son, and daughter living out their respective crises one summer – form a wholly surreal quadrille when the stories begin to elide and collide. Job anxiety, hospital visits, teenage love, birth, a summer thunderstorm, the everyday and the Olmiesque, become apocalyptic by the clustering together of parts and the revelatory rhyming of details.

The Olmi progress is thus from sin­gle-strand stories to multi-weave tapes­tries, culminating in the dazzling plural­ity of plot and theme in L'Albero Degli Zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978). Here, even more than in the Bib­lical documentaries Olmi made for RAI­-TV in the Sixties (St Anthony, Dopo Secoli, Storie di Giovanni), you find the tap-root of the religious concerns that burgeon epically in Camminacammina.

In Wooden Clogs, "Christianity" is hu­manism lit from inside. There one finds courageous and self-sacrificing loyalty, as in a worker's cutting down of the landlord's tree to make a shoe for his son. One finds a view of love that seamlessly binds up Eros, Agape, and procreation in a single, simple honeymoon journey: The newlywed couple travel by barge to a convent, where they spend their wed­ding night, and receive from the Mother Superior the gift of a bounding baby.

The film's humanism is also illumi­nated by a sense of community that is neither stuffy nor starchily idealized. In­deed, it can be primitive, daffy, pur­blind – as when an old farmer screams with demented animism at his horse for "stealing" a coin he had hidden in its hoof and then can't find the next day. The charlatanism that can hold sway among a simple, gullible people is sug­gested in the awed and credulous atten­tion vouchsafed by the peasants to their evening storytellers.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs is about a community marooned in space and time. Camminacammina saddles up a similar community and sends it forth into the wilderness, opening up all its uncertainties and fallibilities to the air, like a wound to oxygen. Doubt and faith must travel hand in hand, Olmi is say­ing. Only by doubting can man quest and question and find answers. Only by having faith can he summon the courage to advance on the stepping stones of new hypotheses toward the firm ground of new truth.


"Camminacammina," explains Er­manno Olmi, "is a little chant you might use to a child. It means: Keep walking, keep walking!"

A couple dozen peasant villagers dress for a pageant. Then, without further fuss, comment, or even a last-reel return to modernity, they are whisked into the real quasi-Biblical past, there to spend the rest of the film. Camminacammina works like one of those Hollywood mu­sical sequences that begin by hoofing it on a circumscribed Broadway stage and then extend into impossible spaces and realms of fantasy. In another sense, it's like the experience of moviegoing itself. We settle into our seats, rattle our pop­corn bags, wait in awe for the fantasy to commence, see the usherette's flash­light as the Star in the East – and then illusion swoops down and sweeps us up into the life on the screen.

Camminacammina becomes the story of the villagers' trek in pursuit of a star. In this journey through desert and valley and mountain, many drop out along the way, for reasons that are sometimes risi­ble ("I've got to get home before dark"), sometimes practical ("I've got to get back to till the fields"), sometimes sad ("As the richest man here I can't afford to make this trip"). Many others who stay the route wonder quite where they are going and why. And just a few have a quenchless faith in the journey's end that brooks no obstacle.

Though he sets it in an eclectic past, Olmi new-mints the spirit of the Magi story so that it is comical-quotidian ten­der for today. Thus the star itself be­comes a whizzing light that passes over­head with a throbbing, high-pitched whine, like an Old Testament version of a UFO. And thus the prophet and as­tronomer Mel (Melchior, the first of the Magi), who leads the villagers off in pur­suit of the savior-king whose coming the star is thought to presage, is played by Alberto Fumagalli as a gentle, burly pedant with a singsong voice, who's caught in a constant tug of generations with his boy servant Rupo (Antonio Cucciare).

Rupo is the gadfly Olmi has set to buzz around the fat immobility of Mel's search for certainty in an uncertain world. The boy won't take the "Because I told you sos' of grown-up ritual for an answer. The "fallen woman" who comes to Mel in an early scene, wanting to expiate her sins with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, prompts Rupo to scurry rebelliously away, crying: "The lamb hasn't done anything. Why can't she risk her own neck?"

For Olmi, man is the maker of every morality, the shrine of every religion, the measure of every universe. We first see Mel and Rupo sitting outside at night painting a map of the stars on a huge animal hide – as if the cosmos could be contained within the skin of every being. And the color scheme of the painted hide (dark blue and brown, speckled with gold) spreads out to be­come a heraldic assertion throughout the movie. Blue skies, brown earth. The gold-edged blue hood worn by Rupo. Even the local soldiery, with their brown leather surcoats and tunics of deep blue.

Olmi says this: If human beings con­tain the universe (or the perceptions through which alone the universe can exist for them), so they also contain the power of moral judgment. And Olmi sets his satiric sights at the folly of per­sonifying Good and Evil as if they live outside us, whether in the form of angels or devils, or inviolable tablets, or infallible encyclicals. Or any human institu­tions – ethical, political, economic – ­which claim omniscience.

The most energizing and endearing quality of Olmi's film is its tinpot linear­ity. Onward, onward the pilgrims tread, accompanied by the changing land­scapes and a brassily warbling march theme. Each challenge in their journey becomes a knockabout Rubicon, rife with credible human doubts. A river that Mel urges his people to cross prompts the elderly and cautious Centurion (Eligio Martellacci) to question, "But why should we cross it? We're quite happy on this side!"

Later, a rickety wooden bridge over a pocket-size gorge becomes a mock-allegorical test of faith. On one side are Mel and the pilgrims, girding up their cour­age for the vertiginous crossing. (The drop is all of four feet.) On the other, a rich merchant garbed all in gold sum­moning up his nerve to traverse the chasm. Seekers after spiritual and mate­rial fulfillment eyeball each other across the trembling span, wondering if their faith will hold.

Even when the pilgrims prove the readier to cross – they have only the Spirit to lose, and that is weightless – ­Olmi's camera catches Mel lingering nervously back until other feet have tested the boards first. Then he quickly bundles himself across, trying to save face and faith by not being quite the last.

There is a majestic irony slowly hatched by Olmi's linear and penny­-plain treatment of the tale: that the final destination of this ever-onward journey is spectacularly vague and chimerical. How will they know Him when and if they find Him – this holy being, a celes­tial king, a traveler on a beam of light, whose coming will restore goodness and justice to the world?

The answer is that, when the crunch comes, they don't quite know him. They have climbed up from valley into mountains; they have joined up with two other Magi kings and their follow­ers; they have re-routed themselves from one promising castle to another... and finally they discover, cowering bunched and timid against fortified walls at dead of night, a father, mother, and child who seem likely candidates. (Well, not likely exactly. But the only ones around.) With the pilgrims getting restless all about him and stamina for the journey clearly running out, Mel turns to his fellow Wise Men and says, "At this point we have no choice but certainty."


Ermanno Olmi – the writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, art director, and costume designer of Cam­minacammina – is one Italian filmmaker who lives out the ideals he evangelizes. Like De Sica or Antonioni, he con­demns the harshness and alienation of city life. Like Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, he's fascinated by the integrity and tough simplicity of peasant life. And like Pier Paolo Pasolini in his story-cycle trilogy of Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights, Olmi is drawn to the spirit of community found in older, more spontaneous times.

But while other filmmakers are con­tent to be soothsayers, Olmi girds up his ideals and acts them out. In production, Camminacammina virtually became the collective pilgrimage that it portrays. Cameras, lights, and equipment were lugged over arduous terrain, and every member of cast and crew was encour­aged to hurl his ideas into the common melting pot.

In May 1983, as if in imitation of a medieval scuola, or craft guild, Olmi founded a cinema workshop for aspiring filmmakers in the town of Bassano del Grappa, near Venice. Work, says Olmi, will range from two-minute shorts to full-length features, and the project has both public and private funding as well as TV sponsorship. Olmi's student col­laborators, drawn from many parts of the world, will be, he says, "film poets and citizens, not members of the film indus­try machine or exponents of a specific cultural viewpoint."

That May was a busy month for Olmi: he made a journey of his own, to the Cannes Film Festival with Cammina­cammina. The filmmaker is a craggy­-faced imp with curly brown hair, a com­bative stance, and a singsong reasoning vehemence of voice. Like many Ital­ians, Olmi speaks with those musical downward swoops that keep presenting you with "logical" propositions you can't refuse. In the burly of Cannes he was patient and animated, agreeing with an­yone who suggested it that Caminnacammina is a new kind of Olmi film:

"I felt I had gone as far as I could with a certain kind of realism, of social paint­ing, that produced The Fiancés or Un Certo Giorno, or even The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Today I'm more interested in finding a unified vision, something that goes back to our roots in history, in leg­end. For me, so many films and so much television today are just a way of 'mark­ing time,' of making conversation while the world is in upheaval all around us.

"In Camminacammina I've tried to deal with truth through myth – not to change one of our oldest stories but to make it live, to make it recognizable again. Nativity plays, the story of the Magi, they are part of a child's fantasy world. They certainly were of mine. And at the same time they were very real. So much of that reality, that fresh­ness, goes when we become adults and religion is intellectualized and institu­tionalized for us.

"Of course Christianity should be 'made sense of' for grownups. What I dislike is the prevarications and dogmas, the sophistry, of formalized religion. 'What we should keep is the simple, childlike intuition of what is true. And that goes for everything, not just reli­gion. Camminacammina is about all of life, not just for believers in New Testa­ment Christianity.

"So the Magi are a prototype of to­day's rationalizers and scholars. They're intellectually qualified for what they do, but in practice they don't measure up to the task set out for them. Just as military history is written by the victors, religious history is written by the survivors. And you have to be crafty, sometimes even cowardly, to survive!"

Near the castle where the Magi find the mother and child, they notice sol­diers massing on the hills, and Mel later pretends to have been warned by an angel in a dream to leave. The other Magi agree to obey the warning, and even to have had the same dream. Olmi illustrates that the search for certainty is fraught with fear and doubt. Mel is chided by a fellow pilgrim for deserting the baby savior king under the pretext of building churches to celebrate the ar­rival of God on Earth. The pilgrim says that the Magi's temples will "not cele­brate his birth but his death."

"My characters go on a journey," Olmi told me, "a journey to find some­one who will bring justice and goodness into their lives – a new redemption. But when they find him, they cannot believe that the Redeemer they have been led to by the Heavenly sign, the star, is a mere child. So they turn around and head home, and many are worse off than before. More skeptical, more despair­ing. But for the lucky few there has been enlightenment. What the story tells us is that there's a need to be reborn, to be­come children again and thence to grow into new men and women. Today more than ever, when we live in an age of false certainties and hypocrisy and instant wisdom, we need to shed these things and become as children once more."


The theme of rebirth – of re-invent­ing life, its values and feelings – is at the core of all Olmi's work. Witness the re­curring motifs: car accidents (Un Certo Giorno, La Circonstanza), whereby death or its imminence sting a character into a new revaluing of life; birth or babyhood (La Circonstanza, Tree of Wooden Clogs); the tabula rasa of the country, or even the suburb, versus the stupefying perceptual tyranny of the city (Il Posto, Durante L'Estate); and the fre­quency of characters whose job is in re­making or reshaping or salvaging man's natural landscape (The Scavengers, the map-makers of Durante L'Estate and Camminacammina).

"The world we have created in Cam­minacammina is imaginary," he said. "From the props and costumes onward, right up to the dialogue and actions. But though we invented all this, the film still has, I hope, a kind of fidelity – to our idea of what the time may have been like. With our costumes, for instance, we did not hire a professional designer. Instead we devised them ourselves, and came up with simple, bright, rough­stitched, primitive costumes, which we hand-wove and colored with vegetable dyes. The landscape too we chose be­cause the region of Volterra in northern Italy seemed true to the spirit of our story. Clay soil, very dry and harsh and primitive, like deserts. And the faces of the local people – very Etruscan, strong and weathered. They seem to come from a different, ancient race."

Camminacammina is cast completely from non-professional actors. As often before, Olmi has resolutely refused to have either star names in his cast or, on his soundtrack, the perennial Italian panacea of professional post-dubbing. "I auditioned for the cast simply by meeting and talking to people from the area," Olmi said, "discovering their moods, their opinions, their idiosyncra­sies. And I based their roles in the film on that. Once they were cast, I let them use their own voices. The people of Biblical times did not talk like dubbers at a film studio."

When it came to devising the script, what were the main sources for the film's story line?

"We drew from St. Matthew," Olmi explained, "and the New Testament, of course, but also from other texts and prophetic writings. From Gadla Adam, for example, who narrates the journey as an ascent into a high mountain. From Marco Polo's Milione. And there are also sources like the tenth-century Mas'udi, who writes how the king's messengers – the three Wise Men of our story – ­were given a loaf of bread by Mary, and then when they left how they buried it under a stone. This we depicted in the film, where it marks the parting of the ways for the different caravans of pil­grims. The buried bread becomes the central point of a cross, as the different Wise Men and their followers move away toward different compass points."

With such an eclectic genealogy of sources, the wonder of Camminacam­mina is that it never seems cumbrous, but rather feather light and full of life. This despite a theatrical running time in Europe of 160 minutes and a TV version (already prepared by Olmi) almost two hours longer. He declares: "I always shoot a flexible amount of footage – in this case we filmed 87,000 feet – be­cause when it comes to the editing I want complete freedom. That's why I never give my films to a professional editor. Though I film all my shots as I think they'll be edited, I also like to cover for other possibilities, in case I have an idea for a different rhythm in a scene – shorter, longer, quicker, slower.

"For the television version, the early section of the pilgrims' trek contains more individual stories. For the theaters I've kept all the principal points of the early section, only relinquishing some little stories and details. The later part of the film is the same in both versions." Last summer Olmi was back in the edit­ing room, tinkering with the theatrical version of Camminacammina until he had honed it to the 145-minute version expected to be shown in New York.


Traditionally, the natural climax and fulfillment of the Journey of the Magi story is the discovery of the Christ child. In Camminacammina the story goes on beyond that, into the slaughter of the innocents, the breaking up of the pil­grimage, the sowing of doubts, and the burial of the bread and the swaddling clothes. Is the film's final coda a state­ment of pessimism?

"We have to distinguish between Christ and the Church," said Olmi, "be­tween the reality of the one and the hypocrisies and dogmas that have be­come so much a part of the other. When Mel says at the end of the film, 'We shall build temples to celebrate the coming of God on Earth,' he is answered, 'You, now, in your temples shall celebrate above all his death.' Christ appeared to us as an infant, celebrating the magic of birth and hope. But the Church builds its reign of fear and moral tyranny on death, on the threat or promise of the afterlife. Thus the Church becomes the death of any voluntary feeling of faith and the wonder and astonishment of true religion.

"Christ came to us in the form of an ordinary human being – not as a magi­cian or a superman or a dictator. And thus he made ordinary humanity itself divine. And in Camminacammina the boy Rupo is an example of what we can be. Mel believes in the God who is out­side and above us, making inviolable and unquestioned laws. But Rupo won't accept any law without questioning it first, without validating it for himself. He says to Mel, 'Why do you always ask me things and then say I can't under­stand?' That is the man to rejoice in and admire – the man who insists on under­standing!

"So it doesn't matter if we're talking here about Christianity or any other force in our lives – political, economic, moral, scientific. If you let someone tell you what to do and do not question it, that is a kind of death. Unthinking ac­ceptance, submission, obedience to dogma, these are all on the side of death. But innocence, astonishment, question­ing, doubt, these are the sacraments of life. I say, 'Camminacammina!' Keep walking, keep walking! For while there is movement, there is life!"







©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.