Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 Palme d’Or winner, ‘The Tree of the Wooden Clogs’, has garnered a reputation for being one of the most underrated Italian films ever made, as well as one of the final films of the Neo-Realist movement. Clocking in at just over 3 hours, the audience needs a massive amount of patience to sit through this; it is slow, brooding and mysterious in its depiction of peasants in the Italian countryside. However, does it really need to be that long? That is precisely one of its downfalls. Sadly, Olmi drags on his unflinching nature combined with his docudrama style and a vague story, losing steam even before the first hour is over.
Inspired by tales from Olmi’s grandmother, ‘The Tree of the Wooden Clogs’ follows four families living in a farming complex in the North East of Italy. Spoken in the Bergmaseque dialect, Olmi presents these characters in the matter of a year and examines their rituals, hardships and dreams. These four families go about their daily activities to survive throughout the four seasons, one farmer plants tomato seeds with chicken dung, which is his own secret fertiliser, a newlywed couple take a romantic journey to Milan to adopt a child, a cow grows sick which could spell ruin for a family etc.
This is the film we are dealing with, ‘The Tree of Wooden Clogs’ is utterly plotless from beginning to end. This isn’t a bad thing if you are watching the film as a documentary. Unfortunately, I find Olmi’s disinterest in character and use of non-professional actors to be paper-thin. It feels like the film is painting these people as cut outs of peasants doing mundane farming activities and not a fascinating set of characters surviving their poverty-stricken conditions. There is no sense of development or characterisation within these people who are impossible to tell which person is which. The only character or sense of a plot that is remotely memorable is where the middle-aged man, Batisti, is chopping down a tree so he can make clogs for his child, the scene that spawned the title of the film. But this doesn’t happen until way within the 2-hour mark if you can make it through the meandering pacing.
Another memorable scene, albeit an unfavourable one, is the infamous scene where the farmers slaughter a pig. They pin the animal to the ground, and slowly cut open its belly whilst the pig is screaming for its life in the pouring rain. This is real, not faked in the slightest and seems like an unnecessarily cruel and harsh moment that has no real justification to be in the film. It comes out of nowhere and it feels like Olmi is punishing the viewer for not paying attention to the previous hour or so. Olmi may show humble intentions for this scene, the argument can be made that this is how people acted during this time. But it acts as a disingenuous shock tactic disguised to prove this point than opting for other means. And ‘The Tree of the Wooden Clogs’ is filled with scenes like this, I can’t recall one moment where it was genuinely optimistic towards the future of these people or heartfelt towards their actions. And when it is optimistic, it completely glances it over in a matter of minutes.
But in fact, the best social realist films still deliver a hopeful message without the need to beat you endlessly about the misery of life. For a recent example, look at ‘My Life as a Courgette’ which is smart enough to balance both the negative and positive aspects of life in a bite size runtime. Even Olmi’s predecessor, Vittorio De Sica, understood this with his neo-realist masterpieces, ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘Umberto D.’ ‘The Tree of the Wooden Clogs’ has far too many shallow characters, is fueled by a nostalgia of life that on a personal level is dishonest and completely unappealing, and is not worthy of its runtime that the advertising constantly boasts about. Sorry, but I don’t see this film as an epic. It may have sweeping cinematography that captures the beauty of the Italian countryside but it has little to no substance in its design.