! Critic Judy Stone
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The 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 Clogs."

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 his son.

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 learning.

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 wife.

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