One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years was Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, a book about a fictional English village passing through the first half of the twentieth century (see my review here). Blythe looks to the past to capture the world of his ancestors, their identity as it is related to place. He doesn’t primarily look at the big events — births, marriages, deaths (though that’s there); rather he looks at the daily textures, the small joys, the buried heartache, the unarticulated desires, the nighttime fears . . . the primary building blocks of life. In his 1978 film, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Ermanno Olmi, seeking to capture stories his grandmother told him, evokes a similar essence as he tracks one year in the lives of four peasant families in Lombardy, Italy, starting in 1898. Olmi evokes this time and place so thoroughly that one might reasonably assume it’s a documentary of some region that hasn’t yet entered the modern age.
To achieve such convincing verisimilitude, Olmi used an abandoned farm and cascina (a large farmhouse where multiple families who worked the land lived together) and hired locals to play the peasants from whom many of the actors were descended. These locals were not professional actors, but by some miracle Olmi directed them perfectly to inhabit the lives of their characters without pretense. Early in the film a man picks up a goose, takes it by the wings to a chopping block, and beheads the creature; as he drains the blood into a bowl the children have brought over, everyone is acting so naturally, even lackadaisically, that it seems this has been a part of their life from infancy. They spent the year of filming together, working the farm, washing clothes in the stream, harvesting while singing songs, butchering animals, suffering disappointments and tragedies, praying to their God in distress or gratitude.
If this sounds boring, I assure you it is not. Even when the film is reserved, life is bubbling under the surface at all times. Olmi captures glimpses and reminds us that even when we’re quietly going about our daily business our spirit may be in tumult. Furthermore, it is always lovely to look at. The Criterion Collection calls the film “painterly,” and I agree.
I’ve gone this long without describing the central struggles of the film because, honestly, to me the film is about transient lives passing through a fixed time and place. Olmi is certainly telling a specific story about social struggle — the peasants live on the farm by the grace of the landowner who takes three-fourths of everything the workers produce, and the threat of losing work and, consequently, the ability to live, is a daily weight — and I don’t want to minimize the importance of the socio-economic struggle Olmi is documenting and criticizing, but the film’s strengths, to me, are when it is documenting daily lives and not when it’s building its criticism of the system. Not that the criticism overwhelms the picture; it is clear that Olmi didn’t feel the need to raise his voice.
We get to see a mother and father struggle with the idea of sending a child to school rather than having that child help in the home and on the farm. We get to see a young couple float on a rickety barge for their honeymoon to Milan. We get to see a grandfather teach his granddaughter how to grow tomatoes. We get to see them work, get tired, and try to banish tired thoughts to enjoy a convivial moment in the tight community.
At three hours, the film takes its time with us, but that’s all for the best. Three hours to track a year in the life feels just about right. By the end, we are happy to be part of the community, and we’re sad to see some members leave, a reminder that life is passing around us.
The Criterion Collection edition: The film was originally recorded in the local dialect Bergamasque, which is the default language for this edition. However, the disc also allows you to select Italian. Of course, it’s all subtitled in English.
- Introduction by Mike Leigh: Filmmaker Mike Leigh provides a 7:01-minute introduction to the film. Leigh’s own films are nicely textured looks at daily struggles with politics often just below the surface, so his perspective on The Tree of Wooden Clogs is welcome, in particular when he talks about the criticism a quiet filmmaker can generate undeservedly.
- The Roots of the Tree: This is a 52:31-minute interview with Olmi conducted for a 1981 episode of The South Bank Show. It’s an insightful look at how the film came about, complete with a tour of the farm where it was shot.
- Ermanno Olmi: We also get two additional interviews with Olmi, one from 1978 when the film was made (running 7:08 minutes) and one from thirty years later in 2008 (running 32:31 minutes).
- Cast and Crew of The Tree of Wooden Clogs at Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival: This is an interesting 34:15-minute round-table at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bolognia Italy from 2016 featuring the cast and crew of The Tree of Wooden Clogs.
- The disc also includes a trailer and comes with an essay, “The Tree of Wooden Clogs: The Sacredness of Life as Understatement,” by film critic Deborah Young.