The Tree of Wooden Clogs archive review: a picture of man and God in harmony

Ermanno Olmi’s peasant drama is rereleased in cinemas this weekend. On its first appearance in 1979, Monthly Film Bulletin praised its haunting imagery and quiet, unsentimental methods.

John Pym
Updated:

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

The harmonious unity of Ermanno Olmi’s film, despite one or two discordant notes, stems largely from the director’s circumspect approach to all its elements. The parts are justly proportioned and nothing is allowed to command undue attention: indeed, it is the director’s dispassionate attitude to all the vicissitudes of life that chiefly distinguishes the film’s unique tone. The adapted parable of the expulsion from Eden (Batisti fells a ‘tree of knowledge’ so that his son can walk comfortably to school), which provides the film with a narrative skeleton, is subtly modified and deepened by the political undertones of the period setting. When, for instance, Stefano and Maddalena arrive silent and wide-eyed in Milan, they encounter, however peripherally, the bloody political riots of May 1898. At the same time, the film’s juxtaposed and half-complementary political and religious arguments are underpinned by what Olmi has suggested is the film’s key, the permanence of the relationship between God’s land and the people who work it.

This great theme which, together with a celebration of communal virtues, provides most of the film’s exact, fragmented, unsentimentalised subject matter, is so successfully and quietly handled by Olmi simply because he has resisted, as one would expect, all temptations to glorify either the land or the people. The killing of a pig, the beheading of a goose, the shucking of maize, the cultivation of tomatoes are all seen as the essentially unremarkable means, though none the less interesting for that, by which man stays alive: and he stays alive to worship and accept the ways of his God.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

This is not to say that Olmi, using a 16mm camera and a cast of non-professionals, has painted a completely ‘real’ portrait of his peasant heroes – they are, for one thing, a shade too spiritual, a shade too uncarnal – but it is to emphasise that most people, peasants or not, do contrive to manage their affairs (unfashionable though this may seem) without recourse to dialectical discussion. His film celebrates the doers; the chained political prisoners whom Stefano and Maddalena watch being led silently through the streets of Milan will in the new century make their mark on Italian society, will in fact initiate the destruction of the false, feudal ‘paradise’ of the peasants. But what remains of importance to Olmi are the abiding bonds that hold individuals and families together, and the succouring relationship between God and man. Olmi’s method is not entirely free from sentimentality: his view of children is fond almost to a fault, and he sometimes miscalculates an effect.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

The script, he has said, was in his head for some years and was largely composed of remembered incidents from his own childhood; however, an overblown sequence such as the loss of Pinard’s coin (he hides it in a horse’s shoe), and the subsequent visit of the ‘sign woman’ to the distraught peasant, would have been better left in the recesses of memory. Nevertheless, the film as a whole contains enough images (and sustained sequences) of tranquillity, harmony and dignity – the boat ride to Milan, the communal storytelling in the stable, Peppino’s affirmation that his mother will not be separated from her youngest children – for The Tree of Wooden Clogs to stand, in these unoptimistic days, as a haunting testament to both the inevitability of temporal change and the persistence of the Roman Catholic faith.

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