Set over the course of 1898, The Tree of Wooden Clogs chronicles four families living on a tenant farm in the province of Bergamo, where they rely on young hands, favorable weather, and their sparse livestock to make ends meet. Director Ermanno Olmi, favoring an elliptical framework where faces come and go with a shortage of continuity or immediate narrative motivation, potentially assists us in seeing these characters as only a class of people to be extoled for their enduring spirits. In between wide shots, whether of young Minek (Omar Brignoli) walking toward his school or the families gathered in a barn shucking corn, Olmi renders the past without overt nostalgia by making clear how meaningful and prideful individual acts can be. If the film is to be praised, it cannot be through the vague assertion of humanism, lest the imperatives and specificity on display be misunderstood.
To that point, Olmi focuses on two particular families, one of whom is led by an elder patriarch, Grandpa Anselmo (Giuseppe Brignoli), whose enthusiasm for growing tomatoes means sneaking away from bed at one in the morning so that his neighbors won’t see him spreading chicken droppings around his land. The idea is to beat his competitors and have produce to sell in town weeks before anyone else. In the filmmaker’s hands, this otherwise quotidian narrative episode becomes a distillation of meaning for Anselmo, whose source of pride derives from feeling as though he understands a process that others do not. Of course, that sense isn’t related to an intellectual source; Anselmo would not, for example, fashion himself a king of the proletariat. Yet Olmi also stops short of sentimentalizing Anselmo’s life as a bastion of Italian culture or infantilizing him as a fool oblivious to the political battles occurring outside of his farmland. What Olmi directly homes in on is the intensity of this man’s pleasure and how it informs his daily toil.
Unlike Bernardo Bertolucci’s overtly Marxist 1900, The Tree of Wooden Clogs addresses politics through the tangible and visibly evident details of its characters’ lives. Neither strictly conservative in its clear fondness for the cultural specifics on display, nor outwardly irate over the constraints the peasants are made to live with, the film asks to be taken at face value but with the recognition that invisible forces, whether societal or religious, are inevitably at play in any point of human contact. For these characters, and seemingly Olmi himself, Christianity matters more than Marxism, if only because the strict belief of immediate contact with an inexplicable God may be used to assuage the pain of the present.
The film’s title refers to a pair of shoes that Batistì (Luigi Ornaghi) carves from a tree for Minek so that he may continue to make a long daily trek to school. In the opening scene, a priest instructs Batistì that Minek has a good mind and could best serve the family in the long run with an education. Olmi initially makes Batistì’s doubts material, as the man is both reluctant to surrender a pair of helping hands and adamant that schooling, which he admits he never had, is of no use. However, on the walk home, Batistì expresses concern over what the other tenants will think about a peasant’s son attending school, which elevates his uncertainties to a structural level where personal happiness is contingent upon the acceptance of his larger social group. If Olmi never makes this kind of point explicitly, it keeps cropping up as a recurrent suggestion of how psychological anxiety has a mysterious way of breeding the material realities of displacement and impoverishment, which is ultimately confirmed by the film’s tragic ending.
The pleasure of The Tree of Wooden Clogs bubbles up from beneath the surface of its tumultuous relationship with heritage, especially as any concrete politics or larger commentary is left dangling within the mise-en-scène. These images, feeling both painterly and improvised at times, aren’t the product of a calculated thesis or historical account. Yet they’re also not humanist anymore than they’re nihilistic because Olmi’s interest in these people and their milieu embraces both of those inclinations in equal measure. The film suggests pain and pleasure are fundamental components of the human condition and refuses to attribute the source of either to a strictly causal chain of logic or events.
The Criterion Collection's 4K restoration returns nearly each frame of the film to Ermanno Olmi's original intent by focusing on proper color timing and depth of field. Outdoor shots, in particular, benefit from this attention to detail, with an array of colors punctuating the depths of the mise-en-scène. Olmi favors a green tint in many indoor sequences, which have been expertly calibrated to assure the color doesn't overwhelm the visual palette. All of this is doubly important considering the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is prone to a loss of detail on less efficient transfers. The monaural track, which has been restored from the original 35mm camera negative, sounds as clean and precise as any home viewer could hope for.
Mike Leigh provides a succinct seven-minute introduction, which lauds the film's attention to detail and Olmi's insistence that the camera remain an organic piece of the unfolding action. Leigh even goes so far as to name it one of the greatest films of all time. There's also a program featuring members of the film's cast and crew offering recollections of its making at the 2016 Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, Italy. The remaining extras are focused on archival materials featuring Olmi. The best is a pair of interviews from 1978 and 2008 in which Olmi explains his formative years and how he came to form an artistic kinship with peasant life. There's also a one-hour episode of the television series The South Bank Show that features Olmi visiting the farm where the film was shot. Finally, there's the film's trailer and an excellent essay by critic Deborah Young, who reflects on the film's notion of revolution by making the wonderful point that even the first scene, of a peasant family sending their son to school, is a revolution of sorts.
The Criterion Collection restores The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Ermanno Olmi's quotidian epic of peasant life in late-19th century Italy, to its simultaneously vibrant and dismal self with this sparsely supplemented Blu-ray release.