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Berlinale 2009: "Terra Madre" and the evolution of a documentary

Waking up halfway through Ermanno Olmi's Terra Madre, one will find a most mysterious kind of documentary emerging.  The anonymous first half—unimaginative footage of the Terra Madre conference, complete with speeches and sound-bites high on general idealism, low on specific information—transitions to a quasi-documentary prophecy that holds both doom and hope for our planet.  The Terra Madre members and the film itself leaves the conference behind for the strangest kind of location scouting: they discover the decrepit house of a solitary farmer, ramshackle and abandoned to the dust of time, but held up as an ideal by the Slow Food Movement and the Terra Madre participants as an unfathomable, extremist lifestyle of agricultural self-sufficiency and isolation.  The atmosphere of the house is what inspires Olmi to move away from the atrocious opening; an aestheric finally emerges, cared for and evocative, the digital images evolve to fit their subject (here, properly dank and curious), the tone almost somberly playful, as Terra Madre presents this house both as a model for the future and a ghostly enigma of unknown motivation and possible misanthropy.

As if inspired by the decidedly fairy-tale tactility of this house of crepuscular hope and despair, Olmi moves farther away from Terra Madre's automated first half, full of endless preaching, conference coverage and company messages with no details or human interest.  The move from conference to haunted house works so well because the film's next move is to living house, as if going from pedantic theory to wary practice to glorious ideal.  The final act films the gentle, naturalist revision of the farmer's dust-entombed lifestyle of solitude and crankiness, amplifying the attachment and love for the land.  No mossy shadows and strange sensation of hauntings here; the tranquil conclusion to Terra Madre is a warm, lovely ode not to correct, moral living, but rather to the simple magnificence of a respectful, Earth-bound lifestyle.  If that sounds treacly, Olmi's handling of the wordless finale (the film's movement is from the nearly empty words of the conference to the unstable truthfulness of the farmer's story, to, finally a wordless paradise) is of a filmmaker admiring not a true human subject in a documentary sense, but an ideal of human living within a natural world.  Departing from documentary form at the film's center—that strange dusty house of mystery, with its paradoxical love and hatred for life—we thankfully transition from documentary to essay, and in letting go of reality Terra Madre beams with nothing but admiration for living well on this planet.

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