The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) is a historical drama set in the 19th century. The focus of the story is a community of peasants who live together on a farm. Throughout the story, their day to day lives are explored as they grow crops, strive for enough food to eat, find romance, and more. The film was the winner of the prestigious Palme d'or (Best Picture) at Cannes and is regarded as one of the best Italian films ever produced.
The film is about the daily lives and struggles of a community of peasants. The peasants live a meager life that is without much of the safety or comfort of modern society. Each member of the community struggles to get by while living in their harsh living conditions. The majority of their income goes to the wealthy farm owner (who owns the land they live on) and not to the people. They are left with very little. They have to grow their own crops. They have to make their way with little money and little means (and often make their own clothes). They have to fend for themselves.
Writer-director Ermanno Olmi (Il Posto, I Fidanzati) has crafted a film which draws material from his upbringing and that of his relatives (who shared many of their stories with him) as he was part of a generation of peasants who lived such a life when he was a child. Before the shift towards industrialization and new job markets and newfound stability (as explored playfully in Olmi's Il Posto), lower-income communities in Italy were often like the one depicted in Olmi's film.
One interesting aspect of the film is how it depicts a family struggling to get by but supporting their young child going to school (even though it was controversial in the 19th century). Most peasants would not be considered able to pay for a child's education. It was not commonplace. However, the family supports their child in the hopes that he will grow to have a better future. This is one of the powerful ways in which Olmi showcases the changing times and the struggles of these people.
Though there is still poverty around the world, Olmi's film depicts a way of life which was starting to disappear when he produced the film: the way in which peasants lived together, worked together, and struggled together as a community enmeshed as one was starting to go away. Changes in housing, education, and new job markets (offering stability to families and individuals) were causing a way of life to alter.
The film stars nonprofessional actors in every role. Almost everyone involved in the production was a local farmer. These people were part of a generation that could see things were changing around them but they were also living their own difficult lives (as the work of farmers is often underappreciated and undervalued). Perhaps, for that reason, the performances feel believable and authentic.
Olmi's work on The Tree of Wooden Clogs is felt on many levels as he wrote, directed, edited, and shot the film. Olmi did the cinematography. Often using a large handheld camera, Olmi gives a deeply personal and intimate feeling to the film while giving it the scope of an epic. Production design work by Enrico Tovaglieri (Give Me Five) and costumes by Francesca Zucchelli (Frou-frou del tabarin) help contribute to the film's authenticity.
The film often feels like a documentary as it is so personal and the performances are so genuine. The film is impeccably crafted. It is simultaneously deeply humanistic and political. In working with the cast, Olmi would deliver lines of dialogue piecemeal rather than present the actors with the entire script (even though one was written). Olmi's entire process feels organic and authentic and the deep humanity of the film is felt throughout. The film is both heartbreaking and jubilant, showing the joys and the sorrows of these lives. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is an essential Italian film which is as much an exploration of a culture and way of life as it is a political exploration of the times.
Presented on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, The Tree of Wooden Clogs has received a new 4K restoration done in collaboration with The Film Foundation and the Cineteca di Bologna. The restoration effort was supervised and approved by Ermanno Olmi.
The film is presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 full frame. The 1080p high definition MPEG-4 AVC encoded video is an impressive presentation of the restoration effort. Colors are superb. Clarity and detail impress. The film appears nearly pristine. There are no issues with print damage, discoloration, or dirt. It's an amazing restoration of the film.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs was produced entirely in the Bergamasque dialect. The uncompressed lossless mono audio preserves and presents the film in the original Bergamasque. This is a stellar 24 bit audio presentation with clear dialogue reproduction. The remastered audio is a compliment to the overall restoration efforts.
Subtitles are provided in English.
A booklet featuring an essay written by film critic Deborah Young.
Introduction by Mike Leigh (7 min., HD) features a discussion on the film with director Leigh.
"The Roots of the Tree" (53 min., SD) is an episode of The South Bank Show. Host Melvyn Bragg interviews director Ermanno Olmi about The Tree of Wooden Clogs and about the director's career as a filmmaker.
Ermanno Olmi: 1978 Interview (7 min., SD) and 2008 Interview (33 min., SD)
Cast and Crew (34 min., HD) is a 2016 panel featuring members of the cast and crew who worked on The Tree of Wooden Clogs as they discuss the film's production and historical significance.
Ermanno Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs is an important work of Italian cinema. The Blu-ray release by Criterion features a 4K restoration and an assortment of informative supplements on the film. For fans of foreign cinema, the release of The Tree of Wooden Clogs is essential.