The Profession Of Arms (Photo: CG Entertainment)

What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.

Funny how that happens. Out of all the movies I’ve watched for non-work-related reasons in the past few weeks, the two I thought were the most interesting both used the deadliness of firearms as an important metaphor. The first of these was The Profession Of Arms—a demanding, persuasive, very smart Italian historical film about 16th-century European warfare, made in 2001 by Ermanno Olmi (The Tree Of Wooden Clogs, Il Posto), a post-neorealist whose name recognition in the United States probably exceeds his viewership. I have a nagging suspicion that I myself have never given the man his proper due. In watching The Profession Of Arms, the first things a viewer learns about political life in the Europe of the early 1500s is that it was inhospitable—drafty rooms, muddy landscapes barely visible through fog and snow—and that everyone involved is long dead. Olmi, whenever he has to introduce a new historical character, will superimpose their name and approximate birth and date years (if known) in pseudo-Gothic Mason typeface. It’s a memorable way of sidestepping traditional exposition. It also sets up an intentional textual barrier, distancing the audience from the start—as does the fact that The Profession Of Arms more or less opens with the funeral of its central character, the mercenary Lodovico De’ Medici (of the notorious Medicis of Florence), better known by the nom de guerre Giovanni Of The Black Band.

Screenshot: The Profession Of Arms

The bulk of the film, set over the preceding weeks and days, deals with the nitty-gritty of post-medieval warfare—as well as Giovanni’s eventual, protracted death from a gangrenous leg wound—with the sort of mesmeric procedural rigor usually identified with Roberto Rossellini’s late-period history films. (The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV is the most famous of those, but I recommend checking out Age Of The Medici and Blaise Pascal.) With its dingy, chilly, cloudy palette, The Profession Of Arms is a deliberate anti-spectacle that manages to be eminently watchable without betraying Olmi’s overarching pacifist thesis that war has always been a dismal and hideous business, made only uglier and more dehumanizing by the introduction of gunpowder. Using the esoteric church-and-state politics and primitive medical treatments of the time as a counterpoint, Olmi makes the argument that warfare is the only thing that has gotten exponentially worse as it has become more sophisticated. And yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Profession Of Arms hooked me mostly on the aesthetic level. The sense of gritty, smoky texture it brings to the period is very original.

Screenshot: Colt 45

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The 2014 French thriller Colt 45 by the Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz (Calvaire, Alleluia),
couldn’t be more different. It’s a far-from-perfect film; I’d rank it about even with this year’s Sleepless as a try at modern-day film noir that is too formally accomplished for its own good. Like that film, which was framed in contrasting angular and symmetrical compositions by Mihai Mălaimare Jr., the cinematographer of The Master, Colt 45 benefits from the presence of a grossly overqualified director of photography—in this case, Benoît Debie, best known for his work with Gaspar Noé on films like Irréversible and Enter The Void and with Harmony Korine on Spring Breakers. The plot has that mix of implausibility and sweaty desperation that only a pulp specialist could love. (Lo and behold, screenwriter Fathi Beddiar previously wrote a book-length history of vigilante movies.) The main character is a world-record-holding sharpshooter who has been consigned to working in the weapons locker of a French police department.

After some high-powered .45 cartridges of his own design fall into the wrong hands, our hapless noir protagonist is forced to cover his tracks, in the process only making things worse, with every successful cover-up leading to the death of another unwitting colleague. The whole thing is too illogical to dig deep into the psychology of desperation and guilt. But it benefits from Debie’s typically strange, spacious compositions and some striking monochrome production design. (Black, white, shades of gray—get it?) It reminded me at times of the films of Fred Cavayé, a contemporary French specialist in entertaining pulp thrillers whose films never seem to get theatrical releases here in the U.S. Though it’s unlikely that Cavayé (or any conventional genre hand) would opt to make a movie so artificial and minimalist, with the hero’s personally customized M1911 pistol as a symbol of those fantasies that turn into nightmares when fulfilled.