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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this: I interviewed Olin about this underrated film and I can imagine he’d be pleased by the sensitive way you’ve written about it.

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