Newly restored and re-released, Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece The Tree of Wooden Clogs, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1978, portrays Italian peasant life at the end of the 19th century via a Neorealist lens. Though his characters and milieu are situated in history, Olmi used nonprofessional actors from Lombardy — many of them farmers themselves, and speaking their own dialect — for this episodic, rambling recounting of stories the filmmaker’s grandmother told him when he was a child. And although Olmi’s compositions are precise and painterly — every shot seems to be beautifully bathed in soft light and shadow, with no detail out of place — the film has the understated authenticity of documentary. He refuses to dramatize and is content to observe.
Tree follows families in a large farming estate belonging to a mostly absent, callous landowner. It unspools across more than three hours, but Olmi’s narrative is resolutely focused on the details of workaday peasant life. An old man and his granddaughter plant tomatoes early for next season’s harvest. A resourceful father cuts down a small tree to make a pair of clogs so his son can trudge through the mud to school. A young couple are married and go to the big city for their honeymoon. Religious rituals are performed, animals are slaughtered, families gather around hearths. Life goes on, even though desperation is never far: In the quietly devastating but unsensational climax, a family is evicted for a minor transgression. They quickly pack up their things in a cart and disappear silently into the night, never to be heard from again — the camera’s distant gaze somehow enhancing the heartbreak.
Olmi’s film could be said to belong to the 1970s minor revival of the pastorals, with titles such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), the Taviani Brothers’ Padre Padrone (1977), Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and, earlier, Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972). But while those filmmakers indulged in political allegory or epic melodrama, often following their characters’ social awakening or attempts to achieve a better life, Olmi is unafraid to let his characters simply be; the film pulls us along on the power of its mesmeric authenticity. That’s not to say that it’s apolitical, however. These peasants’ acceptance of their meager lot in life, and their very human ability to find what beauty and happiness they can in it, carry a political charge. This is one of the great films of its decade, and absolutely worth seeing on a big screen.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
Written and directed by Ermanno Olmi
Opens December 16, Film Forum