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With: Luigi Ornaghi, Francesca Moriggi, Omar Brignoli, Antonio Ferrari
Written by: Ermanno Olmi
Directed by: Ermanno Olmi
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Bergamasque, with English subtitles
Running Time: 186
Date: 05/01/1978

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Farm Aid

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Running three hours and set in a Lombardy farming collective at the turn of the century, The Tree of Wooden Clogs sounds like one of those films that's good for you, that you have to force yourself to watch.

But how quickly The Tree of Wooden Clogs pulls us in! It has a magical rhythm that caresses you and makes you want to move in with these farmers, to wake up early in the morning with them and see what they're going to do next.

Most critics describe Italian director Ermanno Olmi as "underrated" or "unsung." The Tree of Wooden Clogs is his best-known and most celebrated work, and it won the coveted Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival as well as a place on many all-time ten best lists.

Not much happens in the way of plot. The farmers' life is a constant struggle, and they must hand over a certain percentage of their work to the landowner who, in return, lets the four families live and work on his land.

The DVD box cover describes an event that takes place late in the film: a young boy has been deemed as extraordinarily intelligent, and the church orders his family to let him attend school, even though it's a six-mile walk and the boy's help could be put to better use on the farm. After trudging to school for a time, the boy's shoes wear out. His father sneaks into the landowner's prize grove and chops down a tree to make new shoes, knowing all the while that the punishment will be severe if he's caught.

Even though that event is crucial to the film, it only takes up a small percentage of the running time. Otherwise, we follow the adventures of many other events: a sick cow and the prayer that helps save her life; a grandfather who comes up with a new idea for growing tomatoes; or a young couple who meet and marry with only the vaguest idea of what they're really doing. Olmi carefully staggers these threads in and around each other so that the result is a beautiful tapestry full of mud and blood and the colors of life.

The director stretches his stories throughout the generous running time with the most dedicated restraint. He wants us to understand small details like the temperature of a room (warm by the fire, chilly everywhere else), or how long it takes to walk across the courtyard, or the precise ritual of mealtimes. Work is at the forefront of the film, and we grow to understand just how hard and how long these people toil to make their lives succeed. One poor widow must wash clothes all day to afford to feed her children, and even that's not enough.

One could clumsily lump The Tree of Wooden Clogs into the Italian neo-realism genre pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, but those films were rooted in Italy's troubled present, while this one explores its past with a subtle mix of nostalgia and pessimism. In a way, times were simpler, but harsher. People ignored and suffered through the things we complain about today just to focus on mere survival.

But through survival comes a new appreciation for small moments. In one scene, the entire village gathers at night to hear a story told by the funniest and most talented of villagers. For that one moment, nothing could be better. The blurbs all over the DVD box proclaim The Tree of Wooden Clogs a "masterpiece" several times over, and I couldn't agree more.

The above review refers to the Koch Lorber DVD release of 2004, which presented the film in a clean, sharp color full-screen transfer, but with a new, artificially enhanced stereo soundtrack that echoes a lot. I would have preferred to switch to the original mono sound, but the disc does not come with that option. Otherwise, we have just a trailer and a photo gallery. But when the film is this good, none of that matters much.

Now, in 2017, the Criterion Collection presents a Blu-ray release that is a true thing of beauty; the transfer is warm and earthy, with the original Bergamasque audio track and an optional Italian track as well (both with English subtitles). Filmmaker Mike Leigh offers an introduction, there is an hour-long 1981 TV episode with Olmi visiting the farm where the film was shot, two interviews with Olmi, and a video of the cast and crew discussing the film at a 2016 film festival. The disc also includes a trailer, and film critic Deborah Young provides the liner notes essay.

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