Home Video Hovel: The Tree of Wooden Clogs, by David Bax
Revolving around a farmhouse divided into living quarters for multiple families and concerning itself with the ongoing survey of their individual and overlapping lives, Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (out now from Criterion) is almost like a full season of a television ensemble drama crammed into one movie; a poor, rural Melrose Place. Actually, at over three hours, it doesn’t even have to do that much cramming. But the hypnotic grace and humanism of Olmi’s patient storytelling makes the movie something all its own.
These families—four of them—live and work on land owned by someone else, to whom they are due a large portion of their earnings. Feudalism is generally associated with the Middle Ages but Olmi finds a version of it still alive and unkind in the late 1800s in the Italian province of Bergamo (the distinct dialect of which is the main language spoken in the film).
Despite being set nearly a century in the past, Olmi’s neo-realist approach makes The Tree of Wooden Clogs sometimes feel like a docudrama, though an uncommonly beautiful one. The dialect and the many nonprofessional actors help in that, as does the unflinching look at the grisly realities of farm life. As a word of warning, the un-simulated slaughters of multiple live animals are depicted and some of them are almost unbearably bloody and painful.
In between these harrowing events, though, the movie is full of joy and compassion, even in the hardest of times. From the goofy antics of an egg-eating contest to a gripping ghost story told to the children by one of the elders, The Tree of Wooden Clogs is bursting with benevolence for mankind. It’s more than most television series can fit into their entire runs. And Olmi even finds time for that beloved TV mainstay, a wedding.
The transfer was done by The Film Foundation at L’Immagine Ritrovata. In other words, this Blu-ray is not screwing around. The verdant landscape seems to go on forever, even as it diffuses, dreamlike, into the horizon. The audio is clean and pleasant. And the subtitles are a brand new translation.
Special features include an introduction by Mike Leigh, a 1981 episode of Britain’s Melvyn Bragg-hosted The South Bank Show about Olmi and the film, a featurette with the cast and crew at 2016’s Cinema Ritrovato festival, interviews with Olmi from 1978 and 2008, the Italian-language version of the soundtrack and an essay by Deborah Young.