Pros: Beautiful ethno-documentary style of cinematography, authentic performances
Cons: Three-hour time investment (though most will find that it passes quickly)
In The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Ermanno Olmi has spun an intriguing mix of rosy nostalgia and harsh realism to provide a glorious portrait of peasant life in northern Italy of the late 19th century. These are people who suffer and struggle but who also enjoy a warmth of community that is rarely achieved in modern industrialized and technological society. Viewers will feel pity for the harsh conditions under which these people toil while also wishing they could join the gathering of the villagers in the stable to hear a ghost story recounted by the villages best storyteller.
Historical Background: Ermanno Olmi was born July 24th, 1931 in Bergamo, Italy. He was born into the peasantry and later became part of the working-class, which is not typical among the famous Italian directors, most of whom grew up in the aristocracy. He began in film by making documentaries during the 1950s. His first feature film, Il tempo si è fermato (Time Stood Still), was made in 1959. Olmi then co-founded an independent film production company called The Twenty-Four Horses and used that as a springboard for producing two of his better known films, the semi-autobiographical It Posto (1961) (The Job) and I fidanzati (1963) (The Engagement), both of which are available in the Criterion Collection. Olmi established himself with these films as a skilled director in the style of realism. He focused on everyday kinds of people, emphasizing portrayals of daily life over standard narratives. Olmi was a devout Catholic, which came to the fore in his 1965 biopic of Pope John XXIII, narrated by Rod Steiger. This film was such a box-office failure that Olmi turned to television directing until 1978, when he made arguably his career film, The Tree of Wooden Clogs. This monumental peasant saga was awarded the Palme dOr at the Cannes Film Festival. In the 1980s, Olmi reverted mainly to making documentaries with the support of Italys publicly-funded RAI television network. He made one last feature with French funding in 1988 entitled La leggenda del santo bevitore (The Legend of the Holy Drinker) and a full-length documentary, Lungo il fiume (Down the River) in 1992.
The Story: There is relatively little plot to this film. It is closer to a series of vignettes about the lives of peasant families in the Bergamo region of Italy near the end of the 19th century. The movie follows events in the lives of five families (two more closely than the others) who are sharecroppers living in a rural commune. The property and livestock are all owned by the wealthy landowner, to whom the peasants must give two-thirds of all that they produce. It is a life of hardship that is only made endurable by the support that the members of the community derive from one another and their religion.
One of the families consists of the father Batisti (Luigi Ornaghi), mother Batistina (Francesca Moriggi), a boy Minek (Omar Brignoli) of about six years of age, and younger brother Tuni (Antonio Ferrari). Part way through the film they add another infant son Giuseppe. The village priest advises Batisti and Batistina that their son, Minek, is exceptionally intelligent and that it is Gods will that he be sent to school and prepared for bigger contributions. Batisti agrees to send him to school even though Minek will have to walk six kilometers each way everyday and his parents will lose the benefit of his help on the farm. The boy trudges off to school each morning, which is almost unheard of for the son of a mere peasant. His shoes are a pair of wooden clogs but ultimately one of the clogs breaks in half. Minek stumbles home barefooted on one side.
Another family consists of the Widow Runk (Teresa Brescianini), her six children, and their grandfather Anselmo (Giuseppe Brignoli). This family struggles to survive after the recent death of the head of the household. The Widow washes clothing at the river all day long, rain or shine. Her oldest child, Peppino (Carlo Rota), is just fifteen, but gets a job working at the mill and is determined to help his mother maintain the family. We get a sense of the spirit of this community when the mill operator offers him the job because he knew his father to be a good man and understands that the family is in great need. The second child, Teresina (Pasqualina Brolis), is almost twelve and helps her mother by picking up laundry and by watching the baby. Pierino (Massimo Fratus), a boy of about ten, helps his grandfather wash the milk pails and goes for the veterinarian when the cow takes ill. There are two younger girls named Annetta (Francesca Villa) and Bettina (Marie Grazia Caroli). The priest comes by to inform the Widow that the orphanage can take the two younger girls, Annetta and Bettina, if that will help the family survive. The Widow discusses the offer with Peppino, who is now effectively the head of the household, but he states that he would rather work day and night than be separated from two of his sisters. Such is the familial bond of these people!
Grandfather Anselmo is especially close to Bettina and teaches her his secrets for growing tomatoes. His goal is to produce ripened tomatoes in the spring two weeks sooner than any of the other farmers. His secrets include using chicken droppings as fertilizer (stronger than cow manure), spreading some of the fertilizer with each snow to prevent the ground from freezing, starting the spouts in a warm part of the stable, and growing the tomatoes next to the wall of the stable where the ground is warmer. Sure enough! He and Bettina are able to amaze the local grocer by delivering the first fresh tomatoes of spring well ahead of the competitors.
A third family provides most of the comic relief. They include Finard (Battista Treviani), who is something of a hothead and not particularly bright. His wife Finarda (Giuseppina Sangaletti) is an old battleaxe. Finard frequently gets into fights with his neer-do-well eldest son, Usti (Felice Cervi), who is lazy and drinks too much. Another son, 15-year-old Secondo (Pierangelo Bertoli), still wets his bed. They also have a little daughter Olga (Brunella Migliaccio). Finard finds a coin laying on the ground at the Church fair, possibly the first coin hes ever had in his possession. He decides to hide it in the dirt under a hoof of one of the horses in the stable. When he later finds it missing, he accuses the horse of being a thief and starts beating the poor animal. The horse, however, is having none of that and chases Finard around the courtyard, prepared to retaliate.
Another family consists of an elderly couple, Brena (Giacomo Cavalleri) and his wife (Lorenza Frigeni), and their young adult daughter, Maddalena (Lucia Pezzoli). Brena gets drunk at the Church Fair and has to be helped to bed by his patient wife. Maddalena is quite beautiful, in a restrained sort of way, and is the love interest of Stefano (Franco Pilenga), who courts her coyly. After following her as she returns home from work in the woolen mill, he asks, I wanted to know if I could say hello to you? When she pauses to look at him, he adds, Id like to be able to wish you a good evening. This is certainly a slow start as pick-up lines go! Stefano later begins spending time with the circle of families of Maddalenas acquaintance when they meet in the stable for community storytelling. Their courtship is largely confined to exchanging coy glances at a distance in the presence of the assembled families. Nevertheless, a marriage is ultimately arranged and we are privileged to observe the preparations and ceremony. The newlyweds then leave immediately on their honeymoon a boat trip down the river to Milan, which is the big city is this locale. The newlyweds are somewhat overwhelmed by the city, especially because there is a large political demonstration that is broken up by soldiers. The reason for their trip is that Maddalenas aunt is a nun, Sister Maria (Francesca Bassurini), who works in an orphanage. They have come to pick up a baby to adopt. The adoption will provide a small stipend for them but, more importantly, a home for the little boy. Even before their wedding night together, which in this instance will also be their first physical contact with one another of any kind, they have acquired their first child!
When the Widow Runks cow takes ill, the veterinarian advises that it be slaughtered, since he is convinced that it will not survive the day. Although slaughtering it would provide a little money from the butchering, this already destitute family would also lose its source of milk, a blow that they can ill afford. The Widow takes an empty wine bottle and fills it at the stream, praying all the while. She walks to the church and begs God and Jesus and Mary to help her in her hour of need and to bless the water. Still praying continuously, she returns and feeds the water to the cow. Later, the cow recovers and is able to stand, which occurrence is greeted by the family as a miracle. Olmi manages the miracle element with great delicacy; it is not overblown.
The ordinary routine of the community is broken up occasionally by events such as the Church Fair and the arrival of the cloth merchant, Friki (Vittorio Capelli). The Church Fair is mainly an opportunity for drunken revelry by the men but the arrival of the cloth merchant brings all the women out into the courtyard. Most of the conversation revolves around making sure that they are not taken advantage of by the shrewd merchant.
SPOILER AHEAD. SKIP NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID MAJOR PLOT DEVELOPMENT!
The key bit of plot of this film is the follow-up from Minek breaking his wooden clog. He will be unable to continue going to school without a new clog, but his family cannot afford to buy one and the clogs are made from a special kind of tree that is found only in the landowners private grove. In an act of faith, Mineks father, Batisti, sneaks into the grove and fells a tree, returning home with a section of the trunk large enough for making a clog. All the while he prays, hoping that God will spare him from the punishment that is likely to be exacted. We watch Batisti at work making the clog from the section of tree. Later, however, the landowner spots the stump of the felled tree and sends the bailiff to identify the culprit. Soon, we and the villagers are watching Batisti and his family packing up their small number of belongings onto a wagon. They have been evicted, effectively cutting them off from their livelihood, and this at a time when Batistina is recovering from childbirth and tending to a newborn.
Themes: Foremost among the themes of this film is the basic struggle for survival under conditions of great difficulty, where any family tragedy such as early death of a father or the cow taking ill can spell doom for the entire family. The struggles are in part dictated by natural events, such as when the frost abates and how much snow and rain falls, but it is also partly the social system that grinds them down. Olmi subtly but poignantly illustrates the injustice in the social disparities. While the landowner entertains a large party in style in a lavish parlor with a pianoforte, the peasants huddle together in a stable.
The people throughout Italy are Catholics and here, in the life of these peasants, religion is a positive influence on their lives The priest provides genuine encouragement by his inspirational messages and tends to the social needs of his flock as best he can. He offers help for the Widow Runk and helps Batisti and his wife accept the wisdom of allowing Minek to receive schooling. Religion is not merely Sunday mass for these peasants. It is part of their daily living, part of their hope and inspiration. They recite prayers with each meal and at any other time of the day when faced with adversity. Olmi again balances fairly between idealism and realism. The Widow Runk seemingly has her faith repaid when the holy water cures her cow but Batisti is not so fortunate. It was the priest who insisted that Minek be sent to school. When Mineks clog splits, Batisti put his faith in God and cuts down the tree needed to make a new clog, praying the whole while for protection. For Batisti, however, the miracle was not forthcoming. In this instance, the landowner proves to be the more powerful agent in deciding the fate of Batisti and his family. Olmi, I think, is implicitly criticizing the social disparities that place some in the position of playing God with the lives of others.
The social commentary is more subtle in this film than in most films in the style of Italian neo-realism. At the Church fair, a leftist rabble-rouser attracts a crowd with his agitating speech, but is mostly perceived as a foreigner. His babble is largely meaningless to the lives of these peasants. After all, they are already living the Communist ideal to an extent. They work together in a kind of farming collective. They already support one another in many aspects of daily living. The families in this community generously share their meager dinners with a mentally ill man named Giopa, when he shows up. The women help one another in childbirth because they can ill-afford to pay the midwife. The men harvest and plant together and the entire community gathers to shuck corn. They police their own community by breaking up fights that erupt between Finard and his son. Within their peasant class, there is already a kind of socialism at work, but that socialism is encapsulated within a larger system of class exploitation.
Production Values: The Tree of Wooden Clogs was written, directed, photographed, and edited by Ermanno Olmi, allowing him complete control of its style and content. The films style draws on both the documentary tradition and Italian neo-realism. Olmi was influenced, in particular, by the ethnographic documentary style of American filmmaker Robert Flaherty . There are also shades of De Sicas The Bicycle Thief (1948) in The Tree of Wooden Clogs to the extent that Olmi focuses on ordinary people, ordinary events of life, the stifling influence of poverty, and uses nonprofessional actors. Olmis updated 1978 version of neo-realism, however, used delicious soft color photography featuring backgrounds in lovely pastels to contrast with the starkly dark clothing of the characters. Olmis realism is detached and lyrical. He neither glorifies nor scoffs at the life of the peasant; he simply observes it and allows us to observe it. The social commentary is more subtle than in the Italian neo-realism of the 1940s.
Olmi himself came from a peasant background in Bergamo and one can imagine that the vignettes presented in this film were based on stories passed down to him from his parents and grandparents. Olmi invests most of the first hour of the film on establishing the rhythms of life of these peasants: harvesting, planting, slaughtering a goose, grinding corn, and storing away the hay for the winter. The smallest details of life are faithfully reproduced so that viewers feel the warmth of a fire in the hearth or the smell of the dough at the Church Fair. The cast for the film was composed of actual peasants living in this part of Italy, which ensured that the dialog was fully faithful to the local Bergomesque dialect of Italian. The performances are remarkably natural and accomplished for amateur performers. The soundtrack features beautiful organ music by J.S. Bach. In contrast to most Italian films, the audio dialog was recorded directly rather than being post-dubbed.
Bottom-Line: You will seldom encounter a film that depicts a people and a culture with greater authenticity and sensitivity. The Tree of Wooden Clogs was justly awarded the Palme dOr at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. This film is in Italian with English subtitles. The DVD extras include a theatrical trailer and photo gallery. Although this film has a running time of almost three hours (177 minutes), it is never boring and holds viewer interest throughout. I highly recommend it.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Italy:
The Bicycle Thief
Christ Stopped at Eboli
Death in Venice
Divorce Italian Style
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
General della Rovere
The Last Emperor
Life is Beautiful
Miracle in Milan
The Night of the Shooting Stars
Nights of Cabiria
Rocco and His Brothers
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
The Sons Room
The Spider's Stratagem