#854 The Tree of Wooden Clogs
1978 // Italy // Ermanno Olmi
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 Palme d’or winning film The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a three hour epic masterpiece that have been largely sidelined in the discussion of Italian cinema. It has not been forgotten for sure, the major awards it earned have retained the film’s reputation among cinephiles since then, yet it is still rarely seen or mentioned when we talk about the best film of all time. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is, in a simplified term, a “peasants epic” in the sense of depth rather than breadth. It tells a story of four peasant families housing in a typical farm in Lombardy at the end of the 19th century in one year duration. The film captures their life and work like a documentary in astonishing authenticity. People sowing, harvesting, slaughtering the goose and hog, washing clothes at the riverside; singing, praying and reciting rosary or telling ghost stories at night. Seasons change, shinning sun, freezing snow and heavy rain are their natural blessings. It’s like watching Nanook of the North (1922) except we all know The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a true drama, yet still feels like the replaying of human lives.
Ermanno Olmi channels the principle of neo-realistism from his predecessors like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica. The actors are amateurs, they are the real farmers living in the Bergamo countryside. They speaks the Bergamasque dialect, both on-screen and off-screen. Olmi evokes an implicit and genuine performance from the actors, and even the animals! The scene of hog slaughtering is an exemplary of putting life (this time it’s cruelty to animals) on screen without restriction or hesitation, very much echoed the slaughterhouse documentary footage in Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (1949). But what strikes us the spectators the most is the beauty of the nature displayed, the unadnored peasants life illustrated on screen like an oil painting, all photographed and edited by Olmi himself as in a one-man band.
But for those who grows up in accustomed to plot-driven Hollywood drama, they might find the film dull and boring. I truly sympathise with you if that’s true. Because the beauty of life is out there, projected on screen in modesty. It’s a sublime experience, a film to live rather than to watch. All is said, there are actually several threads of plot interspersed and unfolded within the three-hour screening time. The film opens with a priest persuading the peasant parents to send their bright young son to school, four miles away from their house, for enlightenment. This subsequently leads to the boy’s broken clog and his father illegitimately chopping down a tree in order to make a new clog for his poor kid. There’s also a family of poverty-stricken widow with six children who has to deal with the moral dilemma of sending the youngest to orphanage. Moreover, there is a grandfather secretly planting tomatoes on his backyard, a young couple with mutual affection ending up in courtship, a man hiding his gold coin under the horseshoe, the film never stops in offering the slice of life, pieces by pieces, stings by stings, and from here and there, one could catch the glimpses of humanism.
In The Tree of Wooden Clogs, the political message is aptly blent onto the background as an implicit undercurrent looming over the unwitting peasants. A Marxist preacher addressing his ideology among the crowds alongside the carnival in town, army arresting the resistance on street while the young couple in courtship visiting in Milan, but our proletarian protagonists seem to be unconcerned by the political turmoil. Unlike Bernardo Bertolucci’s explicit leftist epic 1900 (1976), there are no fervent uprisings or overt propaganda, Ermanno Olmi simply shows the peasant’s cultural submissiveness and their ignorant resort to religious comfort. Their lodging, livestock, tools and two-third of the harvest belong to the landowner who mostly seen in association with classical music and opera. Subtly the film shows us the hierarchical aristocracy that have been oppressing the poor, which resulted in the school boy family getting evicted as the father chopped down the one tree for his son’s clog (unsurprisingly all trees are landlord’s property). The last scene in which the neighboring family powerlessly witnessing the eviction without any intention to help or resist is utterly heartbreaking. Olmi brings forth a political question with compassion and humanism, he illustrates human life in astonishing realism by minimal lighting and transcendent use of celestial organ music from Bach, the film deserves repeated viewing and particularly more appreciation from a wider audience, that’s when the overused phase “art imitates life” should be applied without any shame.