Whisper of the generations: The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)
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The Tree of Wooden Clogs, by Catholic director Ermanno Olmi, depicts a year in the life of four peasant families living on a tenant farmhouse in late 19th century Lombardy. The actors are non-professionals, real local peasants speaking their Bergamasque dialect, recreating their normal life on camera (even if in the trappings of a century earlier).
The result is a stunning vision of a now-bygone culture that grew out of close contact with the land. Though the film is not nostalgic in longing for the good old days, Olmi (himself a son of Lombard peasants) did say, “I firmly believe that peasant culture in the world is, at this moment in the history of humanity, the only ‘culture’ worthy of that name.”
This film can be seen as a culmination of the neo-realist movement that had developed decades earlier with films like Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City; but Tree of Wooden Clogs is more neo-realist than the neo-realists, with an almost documentary quality and a purer commitment to depicting a way of life rather than a plot.
Olmi was not part of the elite, Marxist-dominated establishment of Italian cinema, and Wooden Clogs drew heavy criticism for depicting peasants who did not revolt against their economic situation. In fact, though the film does not shy away from showing that the peasants’ relation with their landlord is marked by injustice, it also shows them quite indifferent to the revolutionary goings-on we glimpse at the margins of this film.
Olmi instead wanted to “tell history outside the official channels”, and find wisdom in a less “clamorous” history, by listening to the “whisper of the generations”. This “whisper of the generations” very much includes the simple Catholic faith of the peasants.
The great beauty amidst hardship is depicted in a most unassuming way, with Olmi allowing reality to unfold itself through contemplation rather than imposing a stylized structure on the film. He described his approach to filmmaking thus: “There is something in reality that is stronger than you. So what are the terms of the conflict? Am I the one who must tame reality? But it’s so good to be tamed by reality. Because it’s always surprising. This also happens with love.”
The Tree of Wooden Clogs was included in the Vatican’s 1995 list of important films under the category of Values. A little later, Ermanno Olmi and his film school were given a papal medal by
St. John Paul II.
In discussing this film, James and Thomas are joined by film scholar Maria Elena de las Carreras and filmmaker/critic Nathan Douglas.
Music is The Duskwhales, “Take It Back”, used with permission. https://theduskwhales.bandcamp.com
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