Tree of Wooden Clogs – 1/6/16 Wed. film

MRHS Film Committee Presents the First Wednesday Film
Next screening on January 6, 2015 at 7:30 PM
Featuring: The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), 3 hrs.

A peasant couple is persuaded by the local priest to send their boy to school in turn-of-the-century northern Italy. Having to walk a great distance, his wooden clogs break. To replace them, his father cuts down a small roadside tree owned by the landlord. A poignant and poetic masterwork on rural life that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. In Italian with English subtitles. Directed by Ermanno Olmi. Not rated.

The following description of the film is compiled from various reviews:

The Tree of Wooden Clogs was taken from stories the director’s grandmother told him. Using peasants from the Lombardy region in Italy as actors, it depicts the lives of a few families who share a large farmstead around the end of the 19th century. They work the land and tend the livestock for a landlord who cares nothing for their labor and conditions.

The many and celebrated surface pleasures of the film seduce us into it. The life and rhythm of the peasants’ year hold a fascination which needs no gloss, and the wintry landscape with its palette of russets, whites and greens has been justly said to be a character in its own right. The whole is shot in virtually natural light, especially at night, where we experience a sense, as in the scene on Christmas Eve, of that increasingly rare and mysterious thing, the natural night sky.

There are a lot of characters in the movie, and we meet them in a series of many everyday activities. The fields are tilled, a hog is slaughtered, tomatoes are planted against the barn’s sunny wall. A child is born, a cow grows sick, a widow takes in laundry, a courtship proceeds, there is a fight, a wedding and a river journey to Milan, and one of the landowner’s trees is cut down to furnish wood for the clog sandal of a peasant child. It is a lulling experience to watch these daily activities. Almost everything you might want to know about the external rhythms of Italian 19th century peasant life is here in this film.


Tenderness there is in plenty, the tenderness the families feel for each other, that of a mare for its new foal, that of a secret shared between grandfather and daughter of the early tomatoes; the tender awkwardness of courtship and the bridal night.

The film involves us in ways far more moving than do those films that insist on telling us everything we are supposed to feel. What a rewarding piece of work it is! Alive with its subject, as obdurate and sensitive as the land it depicts, as unflinching and quiet as the toil it portrays. Its strength lies not just in its ravishing depiction of the changing seasons in a stunning part of Lombardy nor in its human sympathies, which are never patronizing to the ordinary people, but in its measured, cumulative approach to the hard life of those close to penury and exploited by the powerful.


The film is almost too beautiful for its own good. However, Ermanno Olmi is a rigorous director. He photographs his films straight-on, at eye-level. He admires these peasants without inflating the scope of their lives. Further, just as he chooses not to impose unlikely political consciousnesses on his characters, he refuses to use the tricks of melodrama to hold our attention. Instead, he has made a film that follows the lives of the farmers much as they follow the course of the seasons.

Though Mr. Olmi always sticks closely to the details of specific events, the effect of the film is of knowledge gained obliquely. The movie is an accumulation of dozens of experiences of children, adults, old people, village idiots, of harvest times and plantings, of moments of boredom and jealousy, celebrations, fatigue, brief pleasures and mysterious ones. It moves so effortlessly, often with great humor and always with compassion, that it seems much shorter than most 90-minute films.


The quality of the performances of the huge cast is staggeringly good. The faces are beautiful without being pretty. You may be particularly taken by some of the children, all of whom look a bit underfed and undersized, and by the relationship of an especially tiny little girl and her ancient grandfather who grows tomatoes by his own secret formula.

“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is a profoundly serious film that stands outside time and fashion. It is a rare cinematic entertainment that would touch any sensitive individual’s heart and mind in a way few movies can. A film without a single professional actor – and yet when Al Pacino was asked to identify his favorite film, the first name that came to his mind was The Tree of Wooden Clogs.

“In a film about peasants, I choose the actors from the peasant world. I don’t use a fig to make a pear. These people, these characters, bring to the film a weight, really a constitution of truth, which, provoked by the situations in which the characters find themselves, creates palpitations – those vibrations so right, so real, so believable, and therefore not repeatable.” (Director Ermanno Olmi)

These details form the delightful mosaic of humility and goodwill that pervade the diverse lives of the peasants: A child trudges miles to study in a school, a privilege of richer folks, wearing a pair of clogs that eventually gives way. A pregnant mother opts to give birth without the help of a midwife so that the money saved could be used to buy warm clothes for her elder kids. There is care for each other and discrete sorrow expressed within closed doors at another neighboring family’s misfortune.


Tragic details and comic details are beaded alternatively to retain viewer attention. The most humbling bit in the film is when families struggling to survive are happy to share their modest meals with visitors who have even less and how elders pass on that tradition of “giving” to the young ones in the respective families to inculcate the habit in the future. What the film provides is more than social or religious commentary – it provides an honest peek at the tenuous lives of simple, hard working, rural folk. It is both real and touching.

The film attempted not only an attack on an outmoded social system, but an almost mystical affirmation of the relationship of man to nature. British director Mike Leigh pays tribute to the film’s humanity, realism, and vast scale. He called the film “extraordinary on a number of levels.” Leigh has described Olmi’s epic of peasant life in Lombardy as the ultimate location film: “Directly, objectively, yet compassionately, it puts on the screen the great, hard, real adventure of living and surviving from day to day, and from year to year, the experience of ordinary people everywhere… the camera is always in exactly the right place… but the big question, arising out of these truthful and utterly convincing performances achieved by non-actors, always remains: how does he really do it?


The Tree of Wooden Clogs won the Palme D’Or for Best Film at Cannes in 1978 and the César Award for Best Foreign Film.


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