Tears For Lombardy

I found myself awake late one night, reading a feature about the epicenter of Italian Coronavirus deaths, around Bergamo, and I was drawn back to The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (L’Albero Degli Zoccoli) the 1978 film by Ermanno Olmi. Three hours long, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs mixes period drama with documentary recreation of late 19th Century country life.

The first time I saw it, at a college film society in the ’90s, I left the theater a little shaken by the graphic butchering of animals (There are just two, in the first hour, but it spares no detail.) and feeling emptied out with sadness for the peasant family at the heart of it.

I found a clip without subtitles. What language would you think this is, if you didn’t know what country it were from?


Finnish? It’s too Romance-sounding. Romanian? Some regional version of French?

It was lost on me, until I was told about it years later, that the spoken language in the film is not Italian, but the Bergamo dialect. This “dialect” is apparently more of a distinct language than a version of Italian – a fact my Italian friends can verify: They say they sometimes can’t understand what people in Bergamo and elsewhere in Lombardy are saying.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 1.50.45 PM

Olmi wrote it, directed it, shot it, and edited it – an amazing feat, especially considering the gorgeous mists and elements all over the photography. To think that he was doing that and directing an amateur cast, and he got these compositions and these performances!

The story starts with a crystal clear dramatic problem. A priest tells a family that their son Minek, who is around 8, is gifted and should be in school, no matter what it takes. The boy’s father Batisti objects that Minek is going to have to walk for miles every day, when he could be at home helping with the chores, since they’re barely getting by and have a baby on the way. The priest lays down the law: They have to do this. Everything that happens to this family after this acquiescence is colored by your own bittersweet understanding that Batisti didn’t want the kid to go to school in the first place.

Mike Leigh, not surprisingly, is a big fan of this film, and contributes a short interview you can watch on the Criterion Channel. Among other insights, he is struck by the fact that it’s both very Catholic and very Left Wing.


Olmi’s love for his culture is obvious and unconditional. The people his great-grandparents’ age of his home region have superstition flowing through their daily thoughts and experience, so if you love these people, you love Mary too, it’s a package deal. The men may enjoy telling gruesome ghost stories at night, but eventually they’ll give the floor to the women leading the rosary. Mendicant beggars drop in unannounced, and the local priest has a habit of insinuating himself into family problems, often as a de facto social worker.

In one sequence a woman uses holy water and a prayer to cure a cow of an illness. You never for a moment think Olmi the 20th Century materialist believes in the miracle in quite the way the woman does, but his sympathy for her makes clear that if she understands it as a miracle, then that’s good enough for Olmi too.

If Batisti’s problem from the beginning is dramatically cut and dried, it’s also politically ambiguous. Is the priest enslaving Batisti by making his burden a little harder with no clear pay-off, or is he applying a little tough love when it’s needed? Is he actually subverting the local patriarchy by putting a limit on a peasant father’s ability to claim all his child’s labor as soon as he starts producing any?

You don’t know. You just accept the guideposts for what they are, and develop favorite characters among the four or so families sharing an open courtyard farmhouse. To watch The Tree of the Wooden Clogs is immersive, a fact reinforced by how seldom Batisti or any of the main characters manage to smile. It’s three solid hours of the peasantry dealing with the seasons, the elements, the livestock, the jobs, the pregnancies, the untreated illnesses, the mud, and the polenta – lots of polenta.

You learn on Day One of Marxism 101 that the feudal economy had lasted for centuries, till eventually it gave its surplus labor to the wage-earning workforce of capitalism, which grew so large it overwhelmed feudalism. On Day Two you start arguing, with your teacher or yourself, about where the hell this capitalism thing is going, with such urgency you never dwell much on feudalism and its workforce.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 5.40.14 PM.png

The Tree of the Wooden Clogs corrects that. These are families literally split between the two economies, peasant life, in which you keep a little and hand the landlord the majority of what you produce, and wage labor. To us, even us supposed sympathizers, the peasantry was a miasma of suffering from which the world as we know it was conjured by some self-interested capitalists – or call them “innovators” if you prefer – but The Tree of the Wooden Clogs gives peasant life a texture and a palette of feelings.

The only comparable film I can think of is Andrei Rublev, but Tarkovsky carries a lot more thematic weight, about the nature of creativity and faith. By keeping the problems simple (which is not the same as simple to solve) Olmi gives you the time and space to breathe with these characters.

On “weighing day,” when the peasants bring their corn harvests to be weighed, the padrone is inside his manor house fussing over his new purchase, a Victrola with a giant orchid of a speaker. The first record he plays is an aria, and the peasants outside all stop in their tracks. It’s a beautiful moment, kind of the opposite of Fitzcarraldo blasting Wagner in the Amazon: In Olmi’s Lombardy you see the natives for a good hour, then see their faces the moment they hear recorded music for the first time.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 1.47.25 PM

Likewise you see the peasants’ and wage workers’ first encounter with a socialist, in the form of what looks like a classic petit bourgeois-turned-revolutionary attempting a rousing speech at the tail end of the annual carnival. It’s an affectionate look at a people that’s genuinely exploited, and duly confused.

The one subplot that offers some ray of sunlight is the young woman who works at the mill receiving the attention of a very patient suitor. Dating in Lombardy in 1900 apparently consisted of sitting quietly for an hour every evening with the extended family of the woman who interests you, until they’re satisfied that you’ve displayed enough commitment and humility.

And when they finally get married, they take a trip for their wedding night, a riverboat excursion to visit her aunt in Milan, a nun in fact, and they spend their wedding night in the improvised guest room of a convent. And odd piece of visual poetry, their funereal black against the nuns’ whites, it makes lust seem chaste, and once again makes the church the intermediary between the old world and the new.

One way Olmi creates an even tempo is by not showing the actual milestones in his people’s lives. You don’t see a birth, you see a girl interrupting her father’s farmwork to announce that birth. You don’t see the suitor ask for permission to marry, you hear it referred to. Nor do you see the decisive action in the wooden clogs plot:

You are almost halfway through the film when some attention gets paid to the clogs on Minek’s feet, the ones he uses to walk miles to school every day. Every step of the way the individual scene you’re witnessing is connected to an element of nature or a challenge of farm life handled with resignation, and it’s up to you the viewer to note how the constellation of characters in the wider stories has moved, incrementally.

There are plenty of peasant work songs, duly recorded as an ethnographer would, but the soundtrack, interestingly, is mostly Bach organ pieces. Sacred music, for people who believe in the sacred, and also the only high art music familiar to church-going poor people of 1900. It has the effect of sanctifying the story without condescending to it. The air in the pipes of the organ feels completely at home in this world. Never for a minute do you lose the feeling of the texture of peasant life, or the granularity of time itself.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 5.42.56 PM

The Winter of Max von Sydow Being Quiet

I was already thinking about Max von Sydow quite a bit when news came out that he’d passed away this month. He was a dream subject for an obituary writer: an artist with a long, full life rooted deep in the Nordic past (His father was an ethnologist.), uncompromising as a young artist, and promiscuous, you might say, for Hollywood paychecks as a character actor later on life.

He also happened to be at the center of a body of work that feels very relevant during this extended winter of the Coronavirus: the ten or so films of Ingmar Bergman’s “great period” from the late ’50s through the late ’60s.


Playing chess against Death.

I first encountered these films years ago while living in Minneapolis. There was a dank video store with a backed-up septic system and shelves of VHS, and one winter I got in the habit of checking out a different classic film every night. I was a “transplant” in Minnesota, and that meant trying to make sense of what I was doing there at all, so it’s no surprise, given the Minnesotan-Scandinavian connection and the long shadow of winter, that by February I settled on the Swedish shelf.

Serious cinema was an ascetic discipline, or so I thought, so I stuck my nose deep  into these films, some of which in fact looked like illuminated manuscripts: The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf, Persona, Wild Strawberries, and the great “trilogy” of Winter Light, The Silence, and Through a Glass Darkly.

“Trilogy,” incidentally, warrants quotes because by the following year I’d read Bergman on Bergman, in which he admits that these three films are considered a trilogy because of a schnapsidee (an idea that sounds brilliant while drunk) he had while drinking with a Bavarian film critic; they aren’t really a trilogy. “Great period” gets quotes because, even though these are his most Bergmanesque years, when he became a darling of international critics, the films that are aging best are his earlier ones, such as Summer With Monika, Sawdust and Tinsel, and the one I watch at least once a year, Smiles of a Summer Night – but I save that for another time.

Von Sydow was always present for the “great period,” often far beyond the number of words he actually uttered on screen. He was the fulcrum on which these (sometimes pretentious) masterpieces balanced.


Von Sydow and Lindblom, with Ingrid Thulin in background.

In Winter Light, he plays Jonas, a depressed young father who goes to the wrong pastor for advice. Von Sydow being quiet is as expressive as Brando being loud. Jonas hardly talks, but squirms and looks away evasively, as his wife Karin (Gunnel Lindbolm) explains to Pastor Thomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand) that they came to mass that morning because Jonas is suicidal. “It started when he read an article about the Chinese,” she says, describing a sensationalized Cold War account of the ascendant, nuclear-armed China.

Later, when Pastor Thomas questions Jonas one-to-one about why he’s depressed, he denies having money or marriage problems, elusive as ever. “So, it really is the Chinese?” Thomas says archly, and Jonas exhales the faintest guffaw. It’s so very Scandinavian, the kind of scene a Nordiphile laughs at (inside, of course), but that we can forgive most cinema fans for not caring about.

It also struck me, watching it last month for the fifth or sixth time, how contemporary the emotional terrain is. Many of my American peers were already walking around with either undiagnosed political anxiety or its opposite: Projecting onto world events their own internal gear-grinding. Friendships were being frayed by the Democratic primary elections. And this was before Coronavirus.

Although the viral hit (I can’t help it.) this month has been Contagion, The Seventh Seal was my obvious go-to, a more folkloric look at a contagious disease. That’s the first time Bergman and Von Sydow made a film together, in ’57. Von Sydow plays a knight, Antonious Block, returning to Sweden from The Crusades, during a bubonic plague outbreak.

The memorable scenes from it, the ones that make a 20-something trying desperately to fully comprehend it, are of deeply felt Christian angst or existential yearning – and if  they’re a little too earnest for some critics, I had no patience for the impatient back in my VHS days.

Watching The Seventh Seal last century, it felt like a handful of scenes full of dialogue about faith and existence, with a barebones and unfocused plot around it to give the dialogue some semblance of dramatic stakes. Watching it last week, it was more a series of visual tableaux – Antonius playing chess with Death, Christian believers flagellating themselves, Death leading his recent kills over the horizon – with comedy, lots of comedy, in between, and Antonius trying, not very successfully, to carry on an existential conversation.


When Death knocks, you answer.

I never knew, till I saw it with a hundred or so people in a theater, how funny The Seventh Seal is! Gunnar Bjornstrand may be a cloudy day of a protagonist in Winter Light (’63) and many other films, but back in ’57 as the vassal to Antonius he seemed relieved to have so few shades of darkness to get across, and to revel in being a wiseass and leave the heavy lifting to Von Sydow. His casual asides drew loud laughter both times I saw it on the big screen.

The most crafted scene in The Seventh Seal is when Antonius happens on a church; he knows he’s going to die soon, and when he sees a hooded figure inside the confessional he jumps at the chance. He confesses his inability to believe in God, and adds that he started playing chess with Death that morning. Only after he reveals his strategy does the confessor turn around: He’s not a priest, he is Death, and Antonius just threw the chess game.

It’s so momentous, in my memory, this scene happened around minute 60 out of a 90 minute film. (One good thing about the Svensk Filmindustri catalog is they are on point about keeping films short, with crisp three acts coming right on time.) That’s how I remembered it because that’s where I would have put it, but in fact it comes around minute 30, barely into Act Two.


The Magician

The storyteller has already played his best card, and Antonius is already tricked. What narrative forward motion you get in the rest of the film comes from his chance meeting with the traveling minstrel troupe, and his impulsive offer to escort them through a dangerous forest.

In The Magician (’58), Von Sydow plays a traveling doctor named Vogler, a cult-like charlatan who rarely speaks, but whose gravity at the center of the traveling troupe is a persuasive element in their scam. (This always struck me as an expression of Bergman’s artistic self-doubts.)

In The Virgin Spring (’60), Von Sydow plays Töre, a medieval father who doesn’t say much either, and who is called upon to get revenge for his daughter’s murder. This one holds up even better than the others. A study in narrative preparation, I could watch Töre prepare his ritual bath again and again. Ang Lee says that “Life changed” after he watched The Virgin Spring at age 18. “I’d never seen anything so quiet, so serene, and yet so violent.”

In Hour of the Wolf (’68), Von Sydow plays Johan, an artist isolated on an island with his wife Alma (Liv Ullman). Generally a man of few words, Johan descends from his usual orneriness to insanity, as narrated by Alma. I’m writing this post over a few consecutive nights’ hours of the wolf (the hour before dawn), and I think a lot of us can relate to that couple, maybe even to both partners in it, while we’re cooped up waiting for Coronavirus to pass.

I saw Von Sydow in person one time, appearing to promote a comedy he was in, that seemed like a labor of love or maybe a personal favor. At a Q & A afterward, a few members of the public were eager to hear more about The Greatest Story Ever Told, which was 30 or so years old at the time, in which he played Jesus. You could tell by how delicately he answered the questions that he was used to it. He also gracefully accepted a ribbing from the moderator about his role in Strange Brew.

Ironically, the minstrels in The Seventh Seal think they’re doomed when they get separated from Antonius and his escort due to a rainstorm, but that’s what saves them. Antonius brings the rest of the party “safely” to his house, where his wife starts making everyone breakfast. Then the door knocks. Spoiler alert: It’s Death, and there are no more reprieves.


The Death of Napoleon.

Death, as I’ve seen it, is not the dramatic event idealized in pre-Civil War times, a fitting final chapter to a meaningful life. It’s the thief who comes while you’re making other plans. And who cheats at chess besides. In these past few weeks the Coronavirus situation has come over us the same way, as we incrementally bust through our own concentric rings of denial. One day you’re saying, “I wonder if Corona is affecting business.” The next day you conclude that it must be. The next day you’re locking the doors, and you haven’t even said good-bye.

Give Bergman and the Swedish film industry credit for leaving us this legacy of sometimes entertaining movies that unabashedly aim high. Taken as a whole, Bergman used Bjornstrand, Von Sydow, or sometimes Ullman to show us how he, the privileged son of a rather severe minister, was slowly adjusting to 20th Century reality. He was warm-hearted enough to acknowledge, again and again, that the extra stuff in life, the plot fillers, the small mercies we give to strangers, the favors we do out of personal devotion rather than divine duty, aren’t beside the point of our existential journey. They are the point. And the jugglers and clowns are possessed of a wisdom beyond us.


In Defense of The Irishman

Before we’re finished talking about the films of 2019, I have to weigh in on The Irishman.  If you read its reviews you’d think it was very well-received, but I’ve heard so many friends casually write it off as a sad rehash of films Martin Scorsese made thirty years ago, I feel like I must speak up.

I saw it more than twice, and I loved it because it is so sad – and I confess that I could have done without the framing device of Frank Sheeran’s nursing home memories. I often feel these devices are superfluous, but in this case the story itself is cutting back and forth from the 1950s, when the eponymous Irishman rises through the mafia, to the 1970s when he carries out his biggest hit. So to show him remembering remembering is just too much, and yet…

At its heart, The Irishman is a simple story. Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran) accepts an assignment from his mentor, mafia boss Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), to become the right hand man of labor leader Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa). On a road trip with Pesci in all his 1970s Italian-American glory, he gets his orders: he’s going to have to kill Pacino. So simple, and so sad, since he’s naturally developed some feelings for Pacino in all the years they shared hotel rooms and time with each other’s families.

I was an enthusiastic fan of Scorsese’s take on superhero movies published this year. It’s ironic that the movie he was releasing while he published it was one of his least cinematic. Slow and talky, and at times underwhelming in its creation of period atmosphere, it didn’t bother me at all that it lacked spectacle, and felt more like a TV series. I particularly liked hearing Pacino as Hoffa doing a superb Midwestern accent.

It also comes up with an ingenious way of putting a female character at the heart of a mafia story. While I’m sympathetic to the post-#metoo constant questioning of the onanistic male-centeredness of movie plots that get wide circulation, holding Scorsese to that standard is a little like holding Titus Andronicus to it. If your heart doesn’t melt watching Pesci break the news to De Niro that he’s going to have to kill his friend, over breakfast at a Howard Johnson’s, no less – of course they’re the first ones awake, and that breakfast table is a space no woman would ever be seated at  – then your political agenda has gotten in the way of your capacity to feel.


Daughter of a Hitman: Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina) with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

In The Irishman, it’s Pacino who’s accessible to women, in particular to De Niro’s daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina when she’s young and Anna Paquin as an adult. It provides the major emotional arc of the movie. While the gangster Pesci’s ham-handed attempts to win his friend’s daughter’s affection go nowhere – in fact, terrify the girl – Pacino the family man makes it look easy.

So when De Niro finally gets the assignment to kill Pacino, it’s not just a crooked union boss he’s killing, it’s the guy his own daughter worships. Who made her a true believer in the labor movement. And who danced with her at family weddings without being gross about it. At the breakfast table at the Howard Johnson’s, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, but in the wider world we have some standards to uphold, some lines never to cross, and it’s a woman who delivers that message.

Beatrice Loayza  writes in The Guardian: “Within these boundaries, Peggy is disconcertingly diminished: Paquin speaks six words in a movie that clocks in at three-and-a-half hours. There may be a potency to such intentional restraint within the film’s elegiac trappings, yet circumscribing Peggy as Frank’s moral conscience remains doggedly frustrating. Is she more of a symbol than an actual person?”

It’s a fair question! The Irishman was written by Steven Zaillian based on a book by Charles Brandt, and I suppose Zaillian could have written a larger plot about the family into that three-plus hours, and it would have been even better. (Like I say, I could have done without the nursing home entirely; without it, it’s essentially a procedural with flashbacks, both of them damn good.)

As it is, The Irishman is a return to one of Scorses’s favorite themes, about the dead end of masculinity. Like Raging Bull, he creates men who are effective in the wider world, which makes them too brutal for their own homes. Scorsese, at age 77, portrays Sheeran as a sad old man, literally sitting with the choices he made. He may have touched more of us a generation behind him if instead he’d fleshed out the ways Sheeran became repulsive to his family. I suppose we’ll appreciate this film more in 20 to 40 years.