Intimate in scale, but epic in scope.
The 20th century was a century of progress in many respects. In many parts of the world, the people in the poorer segments of society live as well as their rich counterparts did in the 19th century in terms of life-expectancy, food quality, and overall well-being. But progress comes at a cost, including a couple of world wars, a nuclear arms race, and the vanishing of a number of different ways of life. Of course the 20th century is also the first century of cinema, and filmmakers spent much of those years training their cameras on those vanishing societies. When that wasn’t possible, filmmakers turned to fiction to revive lost ways of life. Few did so with as much care and dedication as Ermanno Olmi, whose Tree of Wooden Clogs spends three hours with four families of peasant farmers in 19th century Italy. It’s a masterful film about the rhythms of daily life, and Criterion has done a fantastic job of bring the film to hi-def.
It’s 1898 in Bergamo, Italy and four families work their farms, all of which are owned by the same man. We follow these families through a year of their lives, four seasons of daily activity, with its attendant heartbreaks and triumphs.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs is an odd film. It’s is definitely in the vein of Italian Neorealism. Ermanno Olmi started making movies in the waning years of Neoralism’s sway on Italian cinema, and he learned the lessons of the post-war emphasis on examining social relations, filming on location, and using non-actors in principal roles. The Tree of Wooden Clogs shares all these aspects of Neorealism. It’s filmed on-location in an abandoned farm in the Lombardy region of Italy. The roles are all played by local citizens rather than by actors, and they speak an authentic local dialect. And the film is about the social world of 19th century rural Italy.
What’s odd about The Tree of Wooden Clogs is that Italian Neorealism almost exclusively documented the contemporary conditions of post-World War II Italy. The bombed-out streets of Rome served as a backdrop, and the actual people of Rome were the characters. Never before had filmmakers blended the storytelling powers of fiction with the documentary aspects of the moving image to such a degree. In contrast, Tree of Wooden Clogs attempts to “document” a world that’s 80 years past. Other Neorealist directors abandoned the commitment to contemporary documentation (think of Lucio Visconti’s Senso), but most abandoned Neorealism’s techniques when they abandoned the present day.
Tree of Wooden Clogs does no such thing. It totally embraces the documentary aspects of Neorealism, showing us what it would have been like if we’d had a camera at the turn of the 20th century and happened to bring it to a farm in rural Italy. The film is almost plot-less, following the workings of the farm through a year as the workers live their lives. They harvest food, fall in love, have a baby, and generally lead quiet, regular lives dominated by nature and the work they do to prepare it for human use.
The beauty of the film is watching these lives unfold, unhurried by the rush of new technology, unbothered by the increasing political foment around the world, and unaware that there’s a life beyond the four seasons and their small village. We spend a little over three hours with these families, and the quiet way their lives unfold gives even the smallest triumphs or setbacks the feeling of an epic.
Criterion has done their usual great job bringing Tree of Wooden Clogs to Blu-ray. The basis for this release is a new restoration of the film by The Film Foundation at L’Immagine Ritrovata that’s been scanned at 4K. The resulting 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is beautiful. There’s a decent amount of well-rendered grain, and detail is generally strong. Colors are a bit muted due to the film stock, and the overall image is a bit dark. These, however, seem to be intentional aspects of the image. Black levels are consistent and deep, and there are no compression problems to speak of. The film’s main soundtrack is an LPCM mono affair in the original Bergamasque dialect. It’s not gonna push your sound system, but it captures the dialogue and atmosphere well enough. There’s also a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack with a traditional Italian dub. English subtitles are included, and are a fresh translation for this release.
This is a two-disc release, and extras start with an introduction by director Mike Leigh, who praises the film and discusses its influence on him. We also get an hour long episode of The South Bank Show, “The Roots of the Tree” that features an interview with Olmi and a visit to the farm. Olmi appears again for two interviews – one from 1978 and the other from 2008. There’s also a lovely 35 minute featurette where the cast/crew appeared at the Cinema Ritrovato festival where the restoration was debuted to discuss the film. The film’s trailer is included, and the usual Criterion booklet features an essay by critic Deborah Young.
Of course what you’re really watching is a three hour film about Italian peasants. No matter how you dress it up, Tree of Wooden Clogs is an almost plot-less film that unfolds at a glacial pace. It is an almost prototypical “foreign art film” and those not used to that kind of film will likely find this one a slog. There’s also a tendency with a film of this type – one that’s about the peasant class, that won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, that’s often mentioned in the same breath as “humanist” – to feel like you’re performing a good work by watching it. As if sitting through three hours of peasant life is supposed to be uplifting. It may be uplifting, but such an attitude can give the film an overbearing sense of weight, one that its delicacy threatens to topple under. This is one of the few times where being a part of the Criterion Collection may do a film a disservice. Tree of Wooden Clogs begs to be discovered as a fascinating glimpse into a bygone world, not as “an important film.”
The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, an honest attempt to capture a bygone era in rural Italy. It’s slow and meditative, which means it’s not for everyone, but fans of foreign films will likely want to give this one a spin. It’s hard to imagine anyone besting either the audiovisual presentation or extras of this release, so this Blu-ray is the one to own.