Veteran Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi is a devout Catholic, and his work has long had a spiritual agenda. But even in such obvious parables as The Legend Of The Holy Drinker (which won a Golden Lion in Venice in 1988), the message is generally masked behind a credible contemporary drama, a la Kieslowski.
It's a shame that in One Hundred Nails, which the director has announced is to be his last feature, Olmi gives in to the temptations of overt Biblical symbolism in a film that has neither the dramatic sinew nor the charismatic central performance to support the weight.
Italian audiences have given it a respectful reception after it opened on 30 March: Olmi's signature still has authority among older cineastes. Younger audiences may be drawn by the presence of Israeli-born, Italian-based poster boy Raz Degan in the headline role, though the latter's fitful movie career (he was last seen as Darius in Alexander) has hardly helped to keep him in the public eye.
Festival action is by no means a given for this fragile swansong, and it is difficult seeing One Hundred Nails drumming up much interest from distributors outside of Italy.
With its story of a university theology professor (played by Degan) who escapes to a rural idyll by the banks of the Po, One Hundred Nails has moments of great lyricism. In its portrait of a simple community that has created a riverbank bulwark against the advance of modernity, the film has shades of Mark Twain's Mississippi novels or Jean Renoir's unfinished film Partie de Campagne.
But two things undermine the authority of the film's pastoral dream. The first is the absurdity of its initial premise, which takes us into the territory of a Da Vinci Code reimagined by Dario Argento.
Early one morning, a custodian discovers that a hundred precious manuscripts have been nailed to the floors and desks of a university library with thick, crucifix-style iron nails.
This whole opening sequence, with its clunky dialogue and theatrical lighting and music effects, seems deliberately pitched in B-movie mode; only the disorienting syntax created by the overlapping and interleaving of scenes hints that we are in the hands of an auteur.
The mystery stays a mystery for no more than 10 minutes; the culprit is the intense 'professorino' (young professor) played by Raz Degan; his motive, clear from the start but hammered home (just in case we missed it) at the end, is the sudden realisation that book-learning has cut him off from real life: 'all the books in the world', he preaches to a compliant carabaniere, 'are not worth a coffee with a friend'.
And here One Hundred Nails' other main problem is spotlighted: the hobo Christ that Degan becomes when he flees academia, and his fast car, for a tumbledown hovel by the Po, is a humourless hermit whose Son-of-God credentials are overplayed by the script (which, among other things, refuses to give 'il professorino' a name) and by Degan himself.
We're consoled, though, by warm performances from the cast of mostly non-professionals who play the villagers that adopt Degan's character and help him fix up his panoramic hovel. Olmi's nostalgic affection for the earthy rhythms and grounded good-humour of rural life comes through as strongly as it did in one of the director's most celebrated works, The Tree Of Wooden Clogs (1978).
All is simpler in this tight-knit but generous community, and people engage in more wholesome activities than those stressed city folk. Degan's love interest - a gawky, freckled Mary Magdalen - works in a bakery; the young 'disciple' he befriends is a postman who used to work as a builder; the oldies who come to drink and dance at the riverside bar and social club paint, or recite poems, or sing: all is pre-technological, and il professorino is the only one who seems to know how to use a computer.
But as the bulldozers of those we take to be the modern-day Pharisees threaten this pastoral enclave, the Biblical symbolism is forced down our throats more insistently (there are references to Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and many other canonical moments), and the ironic spark of il professorino's rural hosts is doused so that they can sit around the table, wide-eyed and admiring, while he does his Jesus act.
Just as we never really believe that Degan's character would have hammered all those nails into all those medieval manuscripts, so we never really buy the villagers' capitulation to this Donovan-like Christ who appears in their midst with no apparent backstory.
Olmi clearly wanted to use his final feature to make a sort of spiritual summa of his career so far; but the medium is too slender for the message.
Still, the elegaic mood is underlined by the impressionistic nature shots of cinematographer Fabio Olmi, the director's son, who does wonders with natural lighting effects; and by Fabio Vacchi's moody score, which plays insistently with a couple of melancholy thirties songs rearranged by Sardinian jazz musician Paolo Fresu. Olmi is a master at texturing sound and image to create atmosphere.