On a turn-of-the-century farm in Italy, various families work for the farm owner and are paid according to their productivity. One particular family has a gifted young boy, who they decide to send to school rather than force into manual labour. However, the child has to walk many miles to get to the nearest school, and when his shoes break one day on his journey home, the family are too poor to buy a new pair.
A three-hour peasant epic in which nothing very much happens might sound like the ultimate turn-off; but The Tree of Wooden Clogs
("L'Albero degli Zoccoli") is made with so much love and dedication that it rarely flags. Set in the Lombardy countryside in the closing years of the 19th century, the film traces the interconnected lives of four peasant families all living in the same large farmhouse. The most dramatic event, which gives the movie its title, is when a father chops down a tree so that his son can have clogs in which to walk to school, which leads to quiet tragedy in the final reel.
The film's director Ermanno Olmi--himself of North Italian peasant stock--based his subject on incidents from his own childhood and tales told him by his grandfather. His cast were non-professionals, real peasants chosen from villages of the Bergamo region, whom he encouraged to improvise their own dialogue. All the shooting was done on location with a 16 mm camera, using natural lighting and direct sound--a revolutionary approach in Italy at the time, when almost all films were studio-bound and heavily dubbed. The results carry a rare conviction, the unselfconsciously simple speech and muted earth-tones of the visuals make the film feel more like documentary than fiction.
The hardships of peasant life are never softened, though now and then Olmi's affection for his characters verges on sentimentality. And the unquestioning, submissive Catholicism of director and characters alike tends to cloy. But the sense of dignity and harmony, and the film's unhurried pace, always in step with the seasons, create a moving celebration of a vanished way of life. The Tree of Wooden Clogs took the Palme d'Or at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.
On the DVD: The Tree of Wooden Clogs doesn't exactly come packed with extras: cast and technical credits, a stills gallery, and a brief two-minute introduction by Olmi, where he explains why he preferred to record in mono, which still sounds fine on the disc. The images have lost nothing of their muted subtlety, and the transfer is in the full 1.33:1 ratio of the original. --Philip Kemp