Dir: Ermanno Olmi. Italy/France/Germany, 2001. 104 mins.

Veteran Italian auteur Ermanno Olmi has come up with a hermetically-sealed historical epic that some will find ravishingly poetic, others merely boring. Not a few viewers will shuttle between these two states: something of an Italian Tarkowsky, Olmi has the rare talent of transfixing his audience between yawns. Commercially, this story of a minor scuffle during the Wars of Religion that ravaged 16th-century Europe is unlikely to make much of a dent even on the arthouse market, though it should generate some custom in the three co-production territories of Italy, France and Germany. But Olmi is an old festival favourite - The Tree of Wooden Clogs picked up the best film prize in Cannes in 1978, while ten years later The Legend of the Holy Drinker pulled off the same feat in Venice - and festival accolades may extend the run and reach of this worthy pizza.

The film centres on mercenary captain Giovanni de Medici - better known as Giovanni delle Bande Nere, or John of the Black Bands - who, in the late autumn of 1526, found himself on the banks of the Po at the head of the Papal Army. His task was to prevent the fiercely anti-papist troops of Carlo V from crossing the river - the only really effective natural barrier between them and Rome. Olmi doesn't try to sweeten the historical pill: he makes his audience swallow it whole, clinging to the exact sequence of events and briefing the viewer through a mixture of voice-over narration and on-screen captions.

Despite all this exegesis, it's easy to get lost in the swamp of dates and dukedoms. There is something almost touching about Olmi's regard for historical accuracy, which more than once outweighs his instinct - actually rather weak - for dramatic structure. And when he does invent scenes, we're scarcely better served: two women - one a wife, the other a lover - who are edited into the flow at certain points fail to come to life, or even to make much sense.

When we're not trying to remember who is who, two big themes compete for our attention. The first, more convincing, hinges on the question of what - apart from money - drives a young man of 28 to take up war as a trade, and to become obssessed by perfecting it. Giovanni himself is an intense, enigmatic figure, convincingly played by Hristo Jivkov, one of three (dubbed) Bulgarian actors in a production that was also mostly shot in Bulgaria, around the Danube delta. Bravery and determination are his totems, even in the face of death, which comes as a result of a shot fired from a light cannon. And this is Olmi's second big idea: that the technology which killed Giovanni de Medici was an early omen of the impersonal killing machine that modern warfare would become. But though the sentiment is voiced repeatedly, it's never really more than an optional extra.

The best thing about The Profession of Arms is the strikingly beautiful photography - courtesy of the director's son Fabio. A serious attempt is made to provide the story with a style and an iconography that mirrors not only the subject matter but the period. Characters are framed in static tableaux that remind us, ostentatiously, of those stiff family portraits of the early Renaissance; they talk in archaic, formal prose; even the font used on captions, credits and posters is part of the game. At other times, though, billows of dry ice and (in a dream sequence) jousting competitions hit the period atmosphere button too insistently.

And boy, does that amputation scene drag on. There is a lot to be said for modern painkillers - whether medical or cinematographic.

Prod co Mikado

Co-prod Cinemaundici, Rai Cinema, Studio Canal, Taurus Produktion

Int'l sales StudioCanal

Prod Luigi Musini, Roberto Cicutto

Scr Olmi

Cinematography Fabio Olmi

Ed Paolo Cottignola

Music Fabio Vacchi

Main cast Hristo Jivkov, Sergio Grammatico, Dimitar Ratchkov, Dessy Tenekedjieva, Sandra Ceccarelli, Fabio Giubbiani, Sasa Vulicevic