The Tree Of Wooden Clogs (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 11, Number 1, February 1981
- pp. 18-20
- Additional Information
THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS (New Yorker Films Inc., 1978, color, 195 minutes) The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a film which can be used advantageously in an introductory survey of modern Europe, in a course of modern social history, or in more specialized courses dealing with Italian history. Filmed largely in the Lombard countryside and employing non-professional actors who depict their peasant forebears at the turn of the century, the movie is at once realistic and enormously touching. The director, Ermanno Olmi, has managed to capture within the scope of his narrative the timeless quality of rural life and to suggest as well the massive social and economic dislocations destined to overtake the Italian peasantry in the twentieth century. Set in the tiny hamlet of Bergamo, the film revolves about the daily lives of four or five tenant families lodged in a semi-communal farmstead and owning little but the clothes on their backs. Their landlord is for the most part an unseen presence, though his bailiff is often in evidence, roaming the large estate, inspecting the orchards, and scrupulously weighing the two-thirds portion of the harvest which is the owner's due from his tenants. The viewer catches but a single glimpse of the landlord's comfortable world. In a brief sequence one is shown a group of convivial people, gathered together of an evening to applaud a pallid young aristocrat--the estate owner's son perhaps—as he performs somewhat mechanically upon a piano. Although these well dressed and prosperous notables are seen but fleetingly, the sequence serves as a stark counterpoint to the tableau of peasant life slowly unrolling like a vast scroll through the over three hours' duration of the film. Olmi is clearly a sympathetic as well as a perceptive observer. His peasant protagonists are portrayed neither as picturesque toilers nor as Brechtian stereotypes, but as human being possessing an innate dignity which their inevitable victimization cannot efface. They are desperately poor to be sure, living on the very margin of subsistence. A child's broken clog, for example, becomes a source of tragedy for one family, while the illness of a cow portends the total ruin of another. But the observer becomes conscious as well of the timeless rhythm of peasant life and of the eternal and unchanging forces which have shaped it for hundreds of years. Here on the very threshold of the twentieth century the peasants of Bergamo reenact many of the rituals of their ancestors. A huge squealing pig is graphically butchered in what one surmises to be an annual winter rite. And though the local priest is present to bless the bloody 18 proceedings, the ritualistic nature of the killing with its strongly sacrificial overtones is uncomfortably evocative of an ancient, neo-pagan past. There are as well annual ceremonies to drive out the ghosts of winter and to welcome the return of the sun. A "sign" woman customarily officiates at the birth of a baby in place of a doctor. The arrival of an itinerant peddler with his array of cheap textiles, magic philters, and panaceas for assorted physical complaints is greeted with an extravagant excitement which is somehow symptomatic of an isolation existing not only in space but in time as well. The peasants' amusements are still those of their remote ancestors—story telling, puppets on sticks, Punch and Judy shows, and greased pole contests. They battle the same hostile elements as did their forebears—snow, thunderstorms, locusts— and they use the same primitive tools and weapons. It is indeed a tribute to Olmi's great skill that the viewer is always conscious of the humanity of these simple people and deeply moved by their plight, despite the essentially undramatic nature of much of his material. Throughout the film there are scattered intimations of the destiny awaiting the peasantry of northern Italy in the twentieth century. Many of the young girls have already begun to work in a small spinning mill situated on the estate. An orator at a nearby market town preaches to his uncomprehending listeners of the need for social progress and an end to privilege for the few. On another occasion a...