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.


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.

The Organizer

Italian director Mario Monicelli is getting a full retrospect at Film Forum right now, and I for one have signed up for a crash course. Last night was The Organizer (I Compagni, 1963). Written by Monicelli with the screenwriting team of Age & Scarpelli, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – a real head-scratcher, but I digress.

"Marcello! Marcello!" La dolce vita, this ain't.

“Marcello! Marcello!” La dolce vita, this ain’t.

Such an easy-to-like film, and yet it kept getting deeper the more I thought about it afterward. Italian viewers around this time had already seen strike films and were familiar with the hagiography of the socialist movement, so setting a bittersweet comedy inside a textile strike in Turin in the 1890s was presumably a little subversive, tweaking the Marxist orthodoxy, and yet you sympathize with the strikers the entire time.

Working 14 hour days, the workers decide to walk off an hour early one day, but botch the signal, and afterwards a finger-pointing match ends in a snowball fight into which a professor-labor organizer on the run from the law arrives. The fact that the nerdy martyr-for-the-movement Professor Sinigaglia is played by none other than Marcello Mastroianni, otherwise the embodiment of mid-century cool, is just the first delicious thing about this film.

Going back to the Neorealists, the Italians were always scrupulous about giving their working-class characters serious flaws. Even when they were sentimentalizing them, you never get the message that there is anything inherently superior about proletarians, and a part of your heart sinks with sympathy whenever a character opts to collaborate with the reactionaries. The Organizer continues that tradition but goes a step further: Professor Sinigaglia, with a face like Trotsky and Lenin, is touchingly unable to say for sure that he’s doing any good, or at least he has gone native in the working class enough that he knows he has no common vocabulary to express it. “Why do I do it? Because I have a head full of foolish ideas,” he says, while sharing a bed with a worker in true 19th Century style. He even steals from his hosts.

I’m a quick study for screenplay structure – who’s the protagonist, and what his or her arc is – but I’m still chewing on this one. Is it the strikers as a group? That elusive, socialist notion of a mass protagonist? I haven’t seen Matewan in fifteen years, but I’d much rather go see The Organizer again tomorrow than try it over again.

Rome, Open City

The story behind Rome, Open City is about as heroic as screenwriting gets, but it’s so much more than a historical curiosity. I saw the restored version of it at Film Forum this week, familiar with its lore: Rossellini used extras who sometimes simply re-enacted what they experienced during the war, while it was still going on, north of the Alps anyway. The story goes that Sergio Amidei and Fellini wrote the script in Fellini’s apartment, because he was the only one who had heat. (A writer named Alberto Consiglio also got a “story by” credit.)

It’s astonishing how selective memory is, and revisiting old classics often gives me fresh surprises. I’d already seen it on video when I brought a friend to see it in a theater ten or so years ago, and left embarrassed that I hadn’t warned her how jarring the torture scenes near the climax were. With my memory fixated on that, I’d forgotten how shockingly early in the story one of its main characters gets killed, while another is being arrested – and the brilliant reversal when he escapes. I’d also completely forgotten the subplot about the network of escorts who double as informants in exchange for opiates.

The best film ever? No arguments here.

The best film ever? No arguments here.

Maybe because Pope Francis was making headlines that very morning by marrying twenty previously cohabitating couples – seventy years later, but who’s counting? – what struck me most this time around were the characters chosen to articulate the theme. Sure, they had a purity about them, but they were a pregnant couple planning their own shotgun wedding the following day, and this was in 1944.

They were good-looking and salt of the earth all at once, but Fellini, Amidei and Rossellini weren’t content with a mere anti-fascist message from a Jack London-esque proletarian hero. They went big, and chose an unmarried couple to express the highest ideals of Christianity itself: endurance, rebirth, and redemption at the end of suffering. Knowing that Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman became notorious a few years later for their extramarital relationship, it’s remarkable that this was already the kind of character he found most expressive. In a future century, when World War II is just “some war” and the secular-religious deck gets shuffled and dealt all over again, Rome, Open City will be remembered as a great Christian work as much as a political one.