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The Roots of Social Change: Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs on Criterion

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By Christopher Weedman.

The Criterion Collection deserves to be commended for their continued efforts to bring greater attention to the underappreciated films of director Ermanno Olmi. It is regrettable that, over the past fifty years, this Italian filmmaker’s deeply humanist oeuvre has largely lived in the critical shadows of the country’s acknowledged art cinema maestros Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Roberto Rossellini. A former industrial documentarian for Edison Volta (a utility company in Milan, where his mother worked during his youth) in the 1950s, he turned his attentions toward narrative storytelling with his seldom-seen debut feature, Il tempo si è fermato/Time Stood Still (1959). Influenced by both his prior work in documentary filmmaking and the principles of neorealism (notably a commitment to using real locations and non-professional performers in his films) that he gleamed from his admiration of Paisà/Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946), Olmi immediately demonstrated himself to be a visual poet with a cinematic style that he describes as “halfway between the cinema of make believe and the cinema of documentary.”

Through his employment of this hybrid style, Olmi kept the spirit of neorealism alive well past its postwar prominence with a series of remarkable films, which probed the changing cultural landscape of Italy as it began to transition from an agricultural to an industrial society following the end of World War II. The director’s essential early works Il Posto/The Sound of Trumpets (1961) and I fidanzati/The Fiancés (1963) received excellent DVD releases from Criterion in 2003, but to the good fortune of lovers of classic Italian art cinema, the company is back with a gorgeous restoration of his most critically-acclaimed drama, L’albero degli zoccoli/The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). When this 187-minute examination of nineteenth-century Italian peasant life beat out the eccentric Ciao maschio/Bye Bye Monkey (Marco Ferreri, 1978) and The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978) to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1978, director Alan J. Pakula, the festival’s jury president, remarked, “I arrived from America one way, and after seeing this film, I’ll be going home a different man.” This intensely emotional reaction to The Tree of Wooden Clogs is not a surprise. Not only is Olmi’s film an intimate portrait of familial bonds, religious faith, and survival amidst the peasants’ impoverishment, but also, as Peter Bondanella and Deborah Young have aptly argued, an implicit indictment against the economic and social injustices perpetrated upon them by the landowning borghesia.

Tree 04Set against the changing seasons over the course of a year, The Tree of Wooden Clogs with its minimalist yet richly atmospheric narrative depicts the everyday joys, hardships, and rituals of four peasant families from Italy’s Lombardy countryside during the late nineteenth century. They live a communal lifestyle together in cascinas (large farmhouses occupying multiple tenant families) in exchange for two-thirds of their yearly harvests to the wealthy landowner (Mario Brignoli). Each family is seen striving to survive their economic entrapment: notably Batistì (Luigi Ornaghi) and Batistina (Francesca Moriggi) whose ever-growing family is expecting another child, and the Widow Runk (Teresa Brescianini) who, after the death of her husband, must contemplate giving their two youngest daughters, Annetta (Francesca Villa) and Bettina (Maria Grazia Caroli), over to an orphanage due to her ever-increasing inability to feed them properly. These moments are filmed in a naturalist style that eschews the vulgar potential for melodrama on which many other filmmakers would capitalize. This matter-of-fact approach serves to underscore the fact that these economic hardships and difficult decisions are part of the everyday existence of these families.

Olmi utilized non-professionals from Lombardy, who possessed the physical embodiment of the characters. Yet as opposed to some neorealist classics like Roma città aperta/Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) that included both non-professionals and professionals like Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani into their narratives, none of the performers in The Tree of Wooden Clogs had any previous acting experience. In order to achieve utmost authenticity, Olmi filmed on one of the few unaltered cascinas and asked his cast to speak in their native Bergamo dialect. Due to this attention to fine detail, The Tree of Wooden Clogs functions, in part, as creative ethnography by using its fictional narrative to recreate a part of Italian cultural history that, by 1978, had long since vanished.

The director frequently highlights the interconnection between the land and spirituality in the lives of the peasants in the film. This idea is alluded to immediately in the opening sequence, which crosscuts between pastoral images of the region’s corn fields, trees, and streams against the setting sun, while the faint sounds of children singing Catholic hymns are heard offscreen. Throughout the narrative, the peasants are shown caring for the land in a tender and thoughtful manner. Despite being the property of their landowner (whose lack of compassion is vividly demonstrated in the film’s final moments), the land is as cherished to the peasants as God, their families, and their community, since it provides them with both their economic survival and feeling of pride.

Tree 03In one of the film’s most touching sequences, the elderly Anselmo (Giuseppe Brignoli) teaches his granddaughter Bettina his secret of using chicken droppings as fertilizer to grow tomatoes well-ahead of their usual schedule. The audience senses the young girl’s wonder and curiosity, as he imparts his wisdom to her. Nevertheless, these sentimental moments are tinged with the cruel reality that the pair will not be able to receive the nourishment of their labor. When Anselmo later sells the tomatoes to local merchants, Olmi shows Bettina staring hungrily at freshly baked bread in a storefront window. As her fingers stroke the glass, it is made painfully clear that these are simple pleasures that their family is unable to afford.

Olmi likely drew upon his own memories of his relationship with his peasant grandmother in these scenes between Anselmo and Bettina. As the director stresses in a 1981 interview on The South Bank Show (included as a supplement on this Criterion release), she “taught him the art of living” and inspired multiple characters in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, including the beautiful bride, Maddalena (Lucia Pezzoli, who possesses a passing resemblance to actress Diane Keaton). Along with her husband Stefano (Franco Pilenga), Maddalena witnesses arrested revolutionaries during their honeymoon in Milan. These political moments – along with more intimate ones such as Batistì and Batistina agreeing to allow their young son Minek (Omar Brignoli) to get a formal education – suggest the roots of the social change that will occur in Italy during the next century.

Olmi’s detractors have attacked the director for possessing too much nostalgia for Italy’s past lifestyles and traditions, but, when analyzing the peasants in The Tree of Wooden Clogs against the more contemporary working-class characters of Il Posto and I fidanzati, it becomes clear that he is less preoccupied with nostalgia and more concerned with critiquing the loss of community, particularly the potential alienating effects of economic, scientific, and technological progress – an idea that pervades Il Posto and I fidanzati. Interestingly, the borghesia in The Tree of Wooden Clogs are not immune from social alienation, as implied visually in a brief moment featuring the landowner listening to his young son playing the piano from outside the barred windows of his estate. These obstructed shots are paired with additional images of bored houseguests sitting in the parlor, all the while looking at their watches and falling asleep as the boy plays Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo.” When juxtaposed against the film’s vibrant scenes of the singing, storytelling, and laughter of the peasants, the rigid formality and solemn expressions of this landowning family highlight a borghesia deprived of happiness due to their emphasis on wealth and social decorum, instead of communal, familial, and spiritual relationships.

Tree 02Criterion’s Blu-ray/DVD release boasts a stunning 4K digital print of The Tree of Wooden Clogs, which was restored by the Cineteca di Bologna through funding by the Film Foundation. This print’s new color grading (supervised by Olmi) effectively captures the film’s contemplative mood with its muted color palette. An uncompressed monaural audio track with the original Bergamasque dialects is also included, along with an alternate Italian audio track (both with English subtitles), which was used, reportedly, in some Italian markets to improve the film’s marketability.

This release surpasses Criterion’s previous releases of Il Posto and I fidanzati in terms of supplemental materials. In addition to the original theatrical trailer, there is a useful introduction from British director Mike Leigh, who discusses the implicit politics of Olmi’s films. He expresses admiration for the director’s “organic” style, which, in his view, emphasizes the capturing of reality, as opposed to intrusive camerawork intended primarily to showcase one’s cinematic virtuosity. Film critic Deborah Young also contributes an insightful essay that details the criticism The Tree of Wooden Clogs received from some left-wing Marxist critics, who incorrectly perceived it as a “defense of feudalism.” Mirroring Peter Bondanella in his acclaimed book Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, Young finds the film’s subtler attack of the landowning class preferable to the overt criticism found in 1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1976), which also examined the escalating class tension in Italy during the same period (Bondanella 345-346).

Tree 05There are also a pair of interviews with Olmi from 1978 and 2008. Whereas the former is a 7-minute archival interview from the Cannes Film Festival that is mostly superfluous and reveals little about the filmmaker that is not covered in the other supplements, the latter features an engaging 32-minute discussion with the filmmaker, who recalls the making of The Tree of Wooden Clogs, his disgust of bourgeois intellectuals that make ill-conceived judgments against the peasant world, and his desire to break free from conventional narrative filmmaking, which he views as largely a manufactured product. Additional interviews with production manager Enrico Leoni, script supervisor Fiorella Lugli, assistant production designer Rossella Guarna, and cast members Omar Brignoli and Franco Pilenga from a panel discussion at the Cinema Ritrovato archival film festival in 2016 are included. All of them fondly recall the family atmosphere that Olmi created on the set. Lugli remembers the crew creating snow for the film’s winter scenes by cutting pieces of white paper into tiny shreds, an idea that was given to Olmi by British director Ken Loach.

However, the supplemental highlight is an excellent 1981 television episode of ITV’s arts program The South Bank Show, hosted by British broadcaster and screenwriter Melvyn Bragg. In this episode, Olmi (dubbed through an English-speaking translator) discusses his childhood memories and family stories that inspired the film, as well as his filmmaking origins and the cultural and social consequences those face when transcending their class. This episode’s clips from Olmi’s Un certo giorno (One Fine Day, 1968), a perceptive examination of middle-class discontentment, is a reminder of another Olmi film deserving of a proper Blu-ray and DVD release in the United States. Hopefully, those discovering the immense treasures of The Tree of Wooden Clogs will urge Criterion to resurrect this neglected gem in the future.

Reference

Bondanella, Peter (2007). Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, Third edition, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor of Film and Popular Culture Studies in the Department of English at Middle Tennessee State University. His scholarship has appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His interview and career retrospective of British actress Anne Heywood (the Golden Globe-nominated star of the controversial 1967 film The Fox) is in the current issue of Cinema Retro, published in January 2017.

2 Comments for “The Roots of Social Change: Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs on Criterion”

  1. Well written, as always. A very informative review.

  2. Thank you very much, Tony. It was a pleasure to write, especially given the high caliber of Ermanno Olmi’s work. I particularly admire “The Fiancés” (1963), which is more experimental in the way that it synthesizes elements of both neorealism and modernist filmmaking. I’ve thought about possibly screening extracts from it in my Film History course in the fall.

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