A hypnotic look at a way of life that no longer exists.
There is something fascinating about watching other human beings work. Perhaps there is the voyeuristic aspect of catching someone unawares, head tucked in while sawing a piece of wood or body stooped while harvesting the fields, but it’s something deeper than that. Observing someone at work, especially when the labor is physical, appeals to the root of what it means to be a human being. We aren’t meant to be hunched over a laptop or lying on a couch staring at a television. Before electric technology, humans worked to survive not just the elements but survive hunger and disease. Christianity taught us that being slothful was a sin. Physical labor is encoded in our DNA, something we crave but rarely engage in anymore as a society.
Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) may be a feature film, but it plays like a documentary. Set near the end of the 19th century, the film concerns four families that live on a farm in the northern Italian province of Bergamo. They live in the same building, working for the same landlord farmer. Theirs is a hardscrabble existence, working from sunrise to sunset through all conditions for minimal pay. These families rely on their children to help with chores and care for their younger siblings which is why, at the beginning of the film, it is a hardship for one father to send his son to school under the advice of the local priest. Not only do they lose a set of hands, but the boy must walk four miles each way to town for his education. But Olmi’s farmers are a god-fearing lot and do what they are told.
Olmi’s cast of non-professionals embodies life in the late 19th century. These are hard-worn people who survive hand-to-mouth, not beautiful actors pretending to be farmers. Life is a daily struggle, made palatable by God, family and the occasional holiday. Though Olmi includes some joyous moments, much of The Tree of Wooden Clogs portrays life at its most quotidian, as his characters toil away for a nearly invisible landlord who exploits their efforts in exchange for a meager place to live.
At three hours, The Tree of Wooden Clogs may sound like a slog, but it’s actually a hypnotic look at a way of life that no longer exists. Olmi originally presented the film as a three-part miniseries for television, but after receiving the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1978, it was released as single feature in theaters. Olmi does not give us any cursory backstory on any of the characters here. Instead, the film unfolds over a year in an elliptical fashion, the characters doing little but living life. It is we who must work to differentiate and get to know them. By the time the film reaches its heartbreaking conclusion, we are deeply intimate with most of the farmers and their families.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs features minimal dialogue and exposition. Instead, we watch the tenant farmers harvest corn, slaughter a pig, wash clothes and pray. The notion of a strong, nuclear family is essential to Olmi’s film, but religion and miracles are equally important. When a cow falls ill, it could spell the end for one of the families. Even though the veterinarian claims the animal isn’t long for the world, one of the women feeds the cow holy water and within days the cow is back on its feet. Olmi isn’t claiming God’s intervention here but rather the notion that faith itself perhaps kept the cow from perishing.
Threads of stories run through the film. One elderly farmer, Anselmo (Giuseppe Brignoli), devises a plan so his tomatoes will ripen earlier than the other farmer’s tomatoes in the region. Meanwhile, the boy who must walk to school ends up breaking a clog, leading his father to cut down a tree that doesn’t belong to him. If Wooden Clogs appears to be formless, a second viewing shows Olmi’s stories slowly coalesce.
Gentle as The Tree of Wooden Clogs may be, it still houses a stinging critique about class. Though we barely glimpse the landlord and his foreman, the few shots Olmi does include stand in stark contrast to the lives of his peasants. The rich are shown as boorish and uptight, concerned with fine art and Mozart. The peasants, on the other hand, sing folk songs and eat polenta and milk. Though Olmi doesn’t drive his point home, it is impossible not to recognize that the rich maintain their lifestyle via the sweat of the tenant farmers.
With social change just around the corner, Olmi offers hints that this lifestyle is moribund. Like Bernardo Bertolucci’s similar-themed 1900, The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a film about revolution, but it’s one where most of its radicalism is kept under wraps or off-screen. Instead, we are watching living history in a fictional form, a deeply moving and beautiful elegy to a period lost to the ravages of time and the steady march of human progress.