Tree of the Wooden Clogs
"Paradise starts with the love we show each
other here on earth." With these few words,
a young Italian peasant and a mill worker are united
in the sacrament of marriage, but that spirit fills
every miraculous frame of "The Tree of the Wooden
It is love expressed without a superfluous word.
Yet each moment is a visual revelation of tenderness
for all living things: the vulnerable early shoots
of a tomato plant, a child in his first year of school,
a boy shouldering a burden beyond his years, a beggar
who is one of the wretched of the earth, an infant
without parents, Even the butchering of a hog, ordered
by the landlord, has a touch of sympathetic loss.
I can almost hear someone ask, "My God, isn't
all that boring?" No. It is incredibly - and
astonishingly - involving and exhilarating.
Ermanno Olmi's film about the peasants of Lombardy
in 1898 can only be called a masterpiece. This is
no fake exercise in nostalgia for a simpler era,
but a film that seems absolutely rooted in the earth
and the seasonal rhythms of life. The times were
hard, but they were not unendurable. There was injustice,
and it too, was endured.
A voice from the tumultuous cities does reach the
enclosed world of the peasants at the village celebration
of the Feast of the Madonna of St. Augustine. But,
in the film's one touch of irony, the orator's call
for an end to privilege goes right over the head
of a farm laborer who is more interested — not unreasonably
— in the gold coin he finds at his feet.
Olmi — who wrote, directed, photographed and edited
the film — achieves his remarkable authenticity with
nonprofessional performers. The story of several
families who live in a communal farmhouse and sharecrop
together is "interpreted by peasants and other
people from the Bergamo countryside."
For a while, we are not sure which children belong
to which family — and it doesn't really matter —
since their lives are so intertwined. Then gradually,
their individualities emerge, although the sense
of community is always there.
It shows in their pleasure at "being scared
to death" by a ghost story told as they're gathered
together for the evening in the stables. It shows
in the common helplessness they feel at the unfair
punishment meted out to Batisti, who cut down a small
tree on the landlord's property to make shoes for
It was a hardship for Batisti to send the boy to
school in accordance with the priest's advice, particularly
since his wife was expecting another child. The father's
feeling for the youngster is expressed so movingly,
with such economy of style, that descriptions seem
too heavy to convey what Olmi communicates with a
glance, a touch, the light on a face, the most fragile
expression of curiosity and awe at what the boy is
That delicacy, of feelings too deep for words, underlies
all the relationships: the rhyme-loving grandfather
who spins stories about the sparks in the fireplace
and carefully explains his tomato - growing experiment
to the little granddaughter , who tags blissfully
after him; the silent courtship and strange convent
honeymoon of the newlyweds, the look between bride
and mother, which speaks volumes about gratitude
and concern; the mute appreciation of a widow for
her eldest son's sacrifice.
The same approach quickly establishes the landlord's
life, which drains so much of their own. We don't
see more of him than the peasants do, but only music
appears to provide any harmony for this man and his
Olmi has sensitively integrated the music of Johann
Sebastian Bach to express moods that would be destroyed
by dialogue.His camerawork has an equal and natural
majesty. There is nothing pretentious about it -
whether it is a long shot of the men, women and children
bringing in the golden sheaves of corn, a boat ride
to Milan or the images of farm animals and people
settling in for the night.
Referring to his $500,000 budget, Olmi told Newsweek, "I
am used to operating in poverty. I think a lot about
poverty. I don't want to glorify it, but I want to
present it as a condition of mankind in which all
our real potentials are by necessity brought out." But
his heartbreaking finale shows how poverty and injustice
also can crush potential.
At a time when millions are wasted on second-rate
productions, it is a glory to see film transformed
to its most powerful potential.
San Francisco Chronicle June 29, 1979