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Il tempo si è fermato (Time Stood Still)

Posted by martinteller on April 25, 2015

High in the Italian Alps, a dam is being constructed.  The conditions are too harsh to work in the winter, when the only crew is a pair of caretakers: Salvetti (Paolo Guadrubbi) and Venerocolo (Natale Rossi).  But Salvetti’s wife gives birth, and his replacement is Roberto (Roberto Seveso), a college student hoping to use the isolation to study for an upcoming exam.  Robert and Venerocolo have a distrustful tension between them, but their bond grows, especially when a storm knocks out the power.

This is Ermanno Olmi’s first feature film, from 1959.  But he was hardly new to the camera.  During the previous eight years, he had directed some two dozen documentary shorts.  Two years later, after another batch of short documentaries, he came out with the widely-acclaimed Il Posto and then I Fidanzati (one of my top 100 films).  The latter was nominated for the Palme d’Or, a prize he would win in 1978 with The Tree of Wooden Clogs.  Even then he was still making documentary shorts, mostly for television, but at this point he shifts more and more towards dramatic features.  He’s still working today, at age 82.

It’s a long and interesting career.  I confess I’ve never seen any of his vast documentary work, but his features have never let me down.  Even at this first outing, he shows a lovely grace and sensitivity.  And talent for gentle comedy, as Venerocolo and Robert view each other with subtle suspicion, as the newcomer gets on the older veteran’s nerves, as the young man tries to find his place in a situation where he knows he’s the foreign element.  Robert wears a sweater emblazoned with a giant “R”… along with the puffy head of hair he sports, he evokes Archie Andrews, a symbol of an emerging youth culture that is completely alien to Venerocolo.

What’s most appealing about the film is how much restraint Olmi shows.  Never one for big moments, he underplays the rift between them.  It’s not some wacky “odd couple” situation.  He takes it to a level that feels authentic, so that he doesn’t have to make huge leaps to get to the other side.  We fully believe every stage of this relationship and never feel that we’ve had to suspend disbelief to get from one to the next.  The result is a beautiful expression of male bonding, of friendship, of a developing father-son like connection.  The performances by Rossi and Seveso are very endearing, Rossi especially has a terrific face.  Unfortunately, this is the only place to see it, as he never made another film (Seveso had a small role in 1963’s Il terrorista and then seems to have found his vocation as a camera operator).

With wonderful music by Pier Emilio Bassi (including the hilarious “King of Rock” song Roberto plays on his phonograph) and excellent use of the “Totalscope” widescreen frame by Carlo Bellero, it’s a funny and sweet picture.  Both sides of this generation gap are presented with sympathy and understanding… sympathy and understanding that the characters themselves take on.  Rating: Very Good (87)


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