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The Tree of Wooden Clogs

The Tree of Wooden Clogs
Koch Lorber
1978 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 177 186 min. / L'Albero degli zoccoli / Street Date July 13, 2004 / 24.98
Starring Luigi Ornaghi, Francesca Moriggi, Omar Brignoli, Antonio Ferrari, Teresa Brescianini
Cinematography Ermanno Olmi
Production Designer Enrico Tovaglieri
Music Johann Sebastian Bach
Written, Edited and Directed by Ermanno Olmi

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. The films 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 his granddaughter.

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 are inspirational.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 3, 2004

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