Ermanno Olmi is best known in the United States for his 1978 movie, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, even though he is credited with more than 84 directorial efforts. This year at the Mill Valley Film Festival his latest feature, Torneranno i Prati, was shown, a film created for the 100th anniversary year of the beginning of WW I, in 1914 — though Italy did not join until May 23 of 1915. The oddly translated title in English is Greenery Will Bloom Again. What the matter was with the more literal translation of The Meadows Will Return is a question only the distributors can answer.
The film opens with seeming black, white and gray scenes of an Alpine winter, shots of broad white slopes, conifers laden with snow. A makeshift fence wrapped in barbed-wire appears. A whispering male voice begins to speak. We see a small artifact in the snow, human made but uninterpratable, dwarfed by its surroundings then from it men, in dark capes begin to leave. The first begins to shovel snow, and moves forward. Soon a line of men is shoveling. No individual features are visible, simply a human centipede of shoveling.
The camera moves in closer, looking down through the line, arms swinging, shovels tossing snow, snow feathering to the sides and at the camera. It is apparent now that it is not being shot in black and white but very subdued colors. The dark, winter overcast takes on a deep blue aspect, the bobbing helmets of the men, dark gray.
This is the Southern Front, winter of 1916-17. The Austrians are over there somewhere, so close “we can hear them breathing,” as one man says. The camera cuts away from close attention to the men to distant shots of the jagged Alpine peaks, dark ribbed and covered with snow. A stunning shot of sheer white cliff walls with a full moon poised to roll down the sharp spine. What would be featured in winter postcards in other situations, rise ominously. Danger, natural and human is hidden there.
Olmi is the cinematographer of silence. Many scenes have little or no dialog, only the sounds of boots crunching in the snow, heavy jackets rubbing, men breathing. A haunting, accapella rises in the night. A Neapolitan soldier bringing food and mail. When he stops Austrian voices come across the darkened fields and barbed wire calling for another.
Inside the Italian bunker, buried almost out of sight in the vastness of snow and mountain, the scene is claustrophobic. Every shot is latticed with construction beams, bed frames, clothes hanging from lines. The men are shot in close up, encased in heavy fur-lined parkas, wrapped in blankets. Some speak directly to the camera saying something about themselves. We know nothing about the political-economic issues, the strategic decisions, not even “stories” about the men, just these few words, and fear. All are unshaven, gaunt faced. They line up for a meal – a single ladle of thin soup into their tin mugs. Everything in the mountains, 6-10,000 feet in altitude had to be brought in by horse, mule and man.
This is not an action film. Some reviewers have found it to be too slow, reduced too far to the small and personal. For me, it is a true, additional lens on man’s experience of war. Importantly, unlike almost every other war movie made, this does not let the audience get away with the transference of individual courage and self-sacrifice to a measure of the war itself. Neither exemplary courage nor extreme agony is shown. War for many, and much of the time, is the deep aloneness and uncertainty; no cheerful talent shows or ribald drinking to relieve the sense of uncertain certainty.
The story is the mise-en-scene itself. The plot is simple. The men are in danger. The Austrians have been able to tap their communication lines and know where they are. The sounds of muffled artillery is getting sharper as the big guns find their range. Volunteers are asked to lay new wire. Snipers are near enough to pick them off. One man shoots himself in despair. The captain in charge of the contingent is feverish and hallucinating. When his superior, a major, arrives from headquarters carrying orders to prepare an attack — suicidal in the deep snow– he rips off his insignia of rank and refuses. The big shells eventually find their mark and blow the bunker to smithereens. The few left alive, bury those they can find in snow and fall back to another site, likely the same as this. As one journal/novel from Italy said.
We’d done nothing but take trenches and trenches and more trenches. After the trench of the “red cats” came the trench of the “black cats,” and then it was the trench of the “green cats.” But the situation never changed. As soon as we took one trench we had to take another. [A Soldier on the Southern Front: Lussu, Emilio]
Bodies buried one hundred years ago in these conditions are surfacing as late as last year as glaciers pull back from their age-old courses. Olmi’s father was a soldier in the war, on this front. The bits of conversation from the soldiers in the movie could well have come from stories he told his son.
The film is apparently free for use in Italian schools during this centenary remembrance of the war. Its persoanl, almost elegiac, portrayal of the aloneness amongst others in a war would best be used with other films telling stories from other points of view, though Italian movies about WW I are few. Uomini Contro / Many Wars Ago  by Francesco Rossi, [reviewed here] would be a good companion, filmed in similar locales to Torneranno i Prati, but with a more standard movie view of war. It was based on the book cited above by Emilio Lussu.
Some reviewers have commented on the
Olmi himself directed one other, earlier movie against war’s cruelties. The Profession of Arms/Il mestiere delle arme  takes place in the 1500s and is about the first victim of modern artillery.
My Reviews (in Italian)