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Religion in different forms has been one of the themes of Ermanno Olmi's body of work and his relationship with the Church has been steadfast. "Walking, Walking" (1982) retells the story of the Three Wise Men looking for the Christ child, and "The Legend of the Holy Drinker" (1988) is a parable of divine intervention that has been compared to Dreyer's "Ordet" in its religious depth. Other films: "Down the River" and "The Secret of the Old Woods" from 1992, celebrate nature as an expression of the divine. In fact, a theme first enunciated in "Genesis: The Creation and the Flood" (1994) that the scriptures are more than just words written on a piece of paper but part of a living tradition, finds full expression in his latest effort, One Hundred Nails.
If One Hundred Nails is indeed Olmi's last feature film as he claims, it would be nice to say he "nails" it, but unfortunately such is not the case. The film is beautifully photographed by Olmi's son Fabio and the shots along the Po River create a mood of rare tranquility, yet it offers a strangely conflicted and unconvincing message. While it has strong religious overtones with a Christ-like figure suffering for mankind, it also tells us that the religions has never saved the world and that on Judgment Day, God will have to account to mankind for all the suffering he has allowed. The main character is a Philosophy professor played by Israeli actor Raz Degan who turns his back on his profession and prefers to live a simple and harmonious life among the peasants of the Po valley, saying, "All the books in the world aren't nearly as valuable as a single cup of coffee with a friend".
As the film begins, an unknown intruder desecrates the library by pulling one hundred books from the shelves, opening them, and nailing them to the floor of a research library with the type of heavy spikes used to nail Christ to the cross in biblical literature. At first the identity of the perpetrator is a mystery and the police are called to investigate. It is soon apparent that the guilty party is the professor who has renounced his identity and left his BMW near a bridge while feigning suicide by throwing his car keys and wallet into the water.
Soon he moves into an abandoned house along side the Po where he lives off the local people who provide him food and support him in rebuilding his home. Looking like a modern day St. Francis of Assisi with his dark hair and beard, he is seen as a savior by the poor farmers and blends in among the community, going to the beach with them and dancing with the local girl from the bakery. When the inhabitants are threatened with evacuation and a fine, however, the professor (who they now call Jesus Christ) gives them his credit card to pay the fine but it is used by the police to track his whereabouts and he is arrested as the villagers await his return with streets lit up as in a second coming.
One Hundred Nails correctly emphasizes the need to return to the simple life and the joy of commonly shared friendships to counter the strident consumerism of our age, yet the film is not well served by banal dialogue and characters that are little more than a vehicle for the film's ideas. Olmi says that his aim was to show a Christ that was "not the Son of God, but the Son of Man", yet the Christ story has little meaning outside of Christ's relation to God and his depiction of the book-rejecting teacher borders on anti-intellectualism. While the "return to simplicity" theme of One Hundred Nails has relevance, the notion that the books of organized religion are the only avenue to God is short sighted and simplistic.
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