Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some filmmakers move quietly from project to project until a work comes along that's hailed as a career
masterpiece. For Italian Ermanno Olmi the film is The Tree of Wooden Clogs, an engrossing study of
peasant life in Lombardy of a hundred years ago, enacted by an amateur cast.
All of Olmi's previous features had been studies of Italians struggling with employment problems.
Il Posto and
I Fidanzati (both available from The Criterion
Collection) show the realities of work impacting the
human condition in the early 1960s. Olmi's concern in those pictures is how the need to
hold down a job distorts lives. ³Work is man's chance to express himself, the average person's
opportunity to be creative. What I am against is the relationship man has today with
the world in which he works.²
The Tree of Wooden Clogs has much the same theme except it is concerned with the peasant
experience of the 18th century, when tenant farmers worked for landlords in a feudal relationship
dating from the middle ages. Work is the totality of these farmers' lives - the picture is
like an anthropological study. Crops are grown and harvested, animals are bred and slaughtered in
total detail. An entire year covers the labors of a group of four families quartered
in a large farmhouse. One widow washes from dawn 'til dusk but cannot feed her kids; the local priest
suggests she give the younger ones up to the orphanage. Another family keeps having children, even
though it gets harder and harder to scrape by. One son walks six miles a day to attend school.
Those looking for conventional dramatic tension may be bored, but viewers interested in other lives
lived in other places will be held by the strong story threads. Olmi came from a peasant background and
has said that many of the incidents in the film were stories
his grandmother told him. Is the young boy wearing the wooden clog shoes Olmi's father?
In this northern province of Italy the dialect is called Bergomesque, and Olmi is as faithful
to verbal details as he is to the pace of life on a farm. A young couple meet and slowly court at a
pace determined by the little community. A contented grandfather knows how to grow tomatoes early
in the season when most of the ground is still frozen, and in a charming scene passes the secret on to
The Tree of Wooden Clogs has been called a conservative answer to Bernardo Bertolucci's
fiercely political film about roughly the same subject, Novecento / 1900.
In Tree, leftist agitation is represented by a stuffy Marxist hectoring a crowd after
a local fair. He lectures on economic disparity in big-city Italian and is treated like a foreigner;
one of the peasants is far more interested in the shiny coin he finds in the mud. Later on the
newlyweds go to the big town, there to find panic in the streets and mounted cavalry arresting
demonstrators by the dozen. The couple stares in incomprehension. Progressive politics mean nothing
to the peasants, who already live in a successful commune - they work and play as a group and help
one another as best they can. The newlyweds even adopt an orphan.
In Olmi's view the spiritual life is a natural and positive force. A badly-needed
cow is given up for dead by the veterinarian, so the mother prays in church and feeds it holy
water. When the animal perks up, it's considered a miracle. Olmi
clearly believes that the peasant's ties to nature and simple faith are lost qualities that made
life better. His film is relatively free of the flipside of that equation, the ignorance,
superstition and oppression that goes along with poverty. The film has a conservative "'Twas ever
thus" spirit that shows a hard but beautiful way of life in the natural cycle of adorable babies,
hopeful newlyweds and sweet old people. The local priest is supportive, helpful and his sermons
The theme that God Will Provide would dominate if it weren't for one telling incident - when the
schoolboy's clog shoe breaks in half, his father fells one of the landlord's trees to make a new
one, with devastating consequences. The terrible result of the father's offense is treated in the
same way that Olmi handles a hit-and-run accident in a earlier film - we don't see the family learn
the bad news, only the sad results. Just as the driver in the other film can do nothing about the
accident, the landlord's decision is final and irrevocable. Olmi loves the peasant experience, but
knows the system it supports is far from ideal.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs is an unusual Italian film in that the audio was recorded
directly instead of being post-dubbed. Director Olmi also uses off-camera sound very creatively,
and every communal effort from harvesting to spinning thread to shucking corn seems to come
with its own song.
Koch Lorber's DVD presents this very long (177 minute) feature in a good-looking flat 1:33 transfer
that's tight at the sides and may be slightly cropped from 1:66. The original running time was 186
minutes, indicating that this is an NTSC conversion of a 25 fps PAL master. At this rate the show
still has many slow passages, but movements sometimes take on a staccato feel; I wish Koch Lorber
would remaster its films properly for the American television standard.
The package art displays the symbol of Olmi's Palme D'Or win at Cannes. His film
is a vision of a lifestyle gone by and his approach has integrity to spare. Fifty years from now it may be
looked upon as an ethnographic resource.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tree of Wooden Clogs rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson