Ermanno Olmi first conceived of The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) while making documentary shorts like Time Stood Still (1959) for the Edison Volta electric company. Inspired by the stories that his grandmother had told him, he spent months interviewing farm workers from his native Lombardy, basing the scenario and dialogue on their recollections.
Around 50 of them were cast as the residents of a rundown 1898 ‘cascina’ (farmhouse) on the estate of an aloof landowner who is entitled to a sizeable share of their produce. Their restrained performances owed much to the influence of Robert Flaherty, the neorealists, and Georges Rouquier’s docu-dramatic study of the French peasantry, Farrebique (1946).
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Devised as a three-part mini-series for RAI TV, the picture was released theatrically after it unanimously won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Comparisons were made with such rustic epics as Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Padre Padrone (1977) and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), and it has since been cited as inspiration for Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (2010).
Yet it surpasses them all for its quiet power. Critic Andrew Sarris was right, when reviewing this “cinematic miracle” in the Village Voice, to declare that “to see it is to be stirred to the depths of one’s soul”.
Here are five reasons not to miss it.
1. The exceptional evocation of a bygone era
According to Mike Leigh, “The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a film about man and place, environment, seasons, the passing cycle of things; it’s about power, class, religion and faith; love, superstition and journeys; life and death.”
But, as Olmi revealed on The South Bank Show in 1981, it’s also about the past he shared with cast members, who assisted production designer Enrico Tovaglieri by supplying their own tools and artifacts to decorate the sparsely furnished farmhouse.
Through the meticulous accumulation of such detail, Olmi was able to recreate the natural rhythms, harsh realities and simple joys of the peasant world with an unsurpassed authenticity.
2. The sense of community is palpable
Four families occupy the cascina, and Olmi sketches the key characters with deft efficiency, as Batistì (Luigi Ornaghi) frets about his young son walking miles to school, Anselmo (Giuseppe Brignoli) shows his granddaughter how to plant tomatoes and Stefano (Franco Pilenga) coyly courts Maddalena (Lucia Pezzoli).
Yet woven around the individual vignettes are scenes of communal toil, devotion and leisure. Songs and stories abound, as neighbours rally round to slaughter pigs, feed the needy and deliver babies.
Solidarity can only extend so far, however, in what are still essentially feudal times. Thus, when a tenant is evicted, he’s left to load up his cart in sympathetic but self-preservatory isolation.
3. No one appears to be acting
Following Luchino Visconti’s lead in La terra trema (1948), Olmi had the cast speak in their Bergamasque dialect and heightened the naturalism of the performances by having Amedeo Casati record the sound live. Olmi justified his use of non-professionals by stating: “In a film about peasants, I choose the actors from the peasant world. I don’t use a fig to make a pear.”
Yet, by encouraging them to improvise, he captured “a constitution of truth” that reinforces the illusion of eavesdropping on the past, as Widow Runk (Teresa Brescianini) worries about feeding her brood and Finard (Battista Trevaini) accuses his horse of stealing the coin he had hidden in its hoof.
4. The painterly images
In addition to writing, producing, directing and editing the film, Olmi also photographed it by “the light of the seasons” in a tele-friendly Academy ratio. As one of cinema’s shrewdest observers, he keeps the camerawork as simple as the earthy colour scheme and often employs Brueghelian long shots to locate the characters in the landscape to the accompaniment of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Away from the mud and mists, however, the interiors have a spartan cosiness, as the neighbours end their back-breaking days with the rosary or a ghost story. As the characters become more familiar, Olmi makes greater use of close-ups, which only makes the climactic detachment all the more harrowing.
5. It’s a great work of humanism
Olmi has frequently focused on the dignity of labour, yet he was accused of sentimentalising poverty by critics who questioned his Marxist Catholic credentials. Some mocked the Edenic references and the miraculous recovery of Widow Runk’s cow, while others noted the protests that the newlyweds witness after their thrilling barge trip to Milan; they damned Olmi for not having the peasants similarly rise up against injustice.
But there’s nothing reactionary or apologetic about Olmi’s resistance to both patronising nostalgia and populist revisionism in stressing the severity of the oppression the peasants have to endure and the depth of the consolation they derive from their faith. Indeed, it’s difficult to see this as anything other than a work of profound humanist integrity.