Tree of the Wooden Clogs

Seeing The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (L’Albero degli Zoccoli) in a cinema this week was a neorealist sacrament.

Ermanno Olmi wrote and directed it, in 1978, using both actors and non-actors, in the Bergamo dialect. I saw it with a friend from Milan, which is less than an hour away from the setting, and he swears he had to read the subtitles to understand the dialogue.

Killing an animal onscreen is a kind of rite of passage for documentary filmmakers doing rural subjects. Brother’s Keeper did it. Most recently I saw it in a heart-breaking film called Peter and the Farm. In both of those, the killing goes to show the meanness in the life of the main character. The implication is, of course he might be capable of euthanizing his brother, or becoming a charmingly angry alcoholic, as Peter does, if animal-killing is a common endeavor around him.

I first saw The Tree of the Wooden Clogs in the mid 90s (which means more time has passed since then than had passed from the making of the film till I had first seen it, but I digress: Time!) and the main things I’d remembered about it were the sad shots of the peasants taking the lion’s share of their grain to their landlord, and the central metaphor, and that gruesome scene of a pig being butchered. And mud, mud everywhere.

Life is mean, but it was meaner in the late 1800s. I don’t know if this was the first neorealist period piece, but it’s the best example of sweet, simple, languid story-telling in a period setting. The only other Ermanno Olmi film generally available here is Il Posto from 1961, in the Criterion Collection, but you don’t even have to see that to see Olmi’s sympathies: his sadness for the passing of ways of life, his skepticism about modernity, his appreciation for working people and their complicated family lives, and and his sympathy for both superstitious Catholicism and socialism.

tree

The Tree of Wooden Clogs draws on a wider palette of narrative units than most films. You learn something about a character and have no idea whether that element will ever resurface, but the palette is the thematic message in a film like this: Life is unfair.

Olmi blesses his story with a fantastic opening scene, every bit as expressive as The Godfather‘s: Batisti is struggling to make ends meet, and has a baby on the way, so he asks the parish priest for leave to not send his oldest son Minek, who’s still around 10, to school, since he can use him around the farm. The priest insists, Minek is gifted and should be in school, and Batisti and his wife have to suck it up.

Already you see it all: The power of the church, complicated by the “progressive” influence of the priest’s message about education, and the utter vulnerability of the peasants. That Batisti never wanted to send Minek on the six kilometer daily walk to school in the first place makes the complications that arise from the eponymous wooden clogs only that much sadder, but we don’t see this take shape till a good 90 minutes into a three hour film. It’s monumental.

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