THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS
(directed by Ermanno Olmi, 1978)
***** (out of 5)
> Five stars! Who woulda thunk it? Six decades of soaking up movies like a thirsty sponge in water, and there are (apparently) still classic gems out there for me to discover!
. I had heard of this film- way back in the heady days of art house cinema. It was often half of a double-bill at places like the Fox Venice and the Sash Mill Cinema, theaters that came out with big monthly calendars of the films that changed nightly. In these days it was not unusual for me to go out to the movies three days a week, and what I was seeing was (mostly) the cream of the cream. This Italian film took the big prize at Cannes the year it was released. Wikipedia sez Al Pacino has often called it his favorite film. I can see why.
. THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS is perfect. At two minutes shy of three hours there is really nothing extraneous in it. In fact, it feels like something major is left out at the sad and inevitable ending. A crucial revelation is referred to the way one might in a play, and not shown. In film, we are more used to seeing such pivotal confrontations. But that might just be a mater of the conventions I have been trained to expect. I won’t second-guess such a sublime film. Clearly director Ermanno Olmi knew exactly what he was doing in every frame.
. It’s a very simple story of peasant life in late 19th century Italy, showing their joys and sorrows, their work and family life, in an unblinking matter-of-fact way that feels documentary-like in its verisimilitude. Four families live together in a flat owned by the out-of-touch landlord, who plays opera on his new hand-crank phonograph to entertain himself and impress the lower classes. They work hard for him- long hours every day of the week, keeping his animals from which they get milk, and eggs, and occasionally, meat. We watch them working, listen to them sing to pass the time, eavesdrop on a storyteller around the evening fire, observe their courtship rituals and the slaughtering of animals. In short- nothing happens. It’s just life, and it’s mesmerizing.
. It helped that none of the parts were played by professional actors. This naturalistic film was cast with real people, playing real people. The main drama revolves around the plight of one unusually bright child who is sent far afield every day to attend school. He only has one pair of clogs, and when one breaks, it imperils his education. His loving father makes a desperate choice to help the child- a choice that comes back to haunt the family later.
.Summon the patience, turn down the lights, pop a beer and let this film wash over you and embrace you in its bittersweet arms.
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