Kristi Mitsuda on The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Director Ermanno Olmi opens his sublime epic The Tree of Wooden Clogs with a series of still shots of farmland—creeks, cornfields, and crops—set to the foregrounded sounds of birdsong and rushing water; in the distance there are murmurs of church hymns. Another early montage scored to church organs captures the peasant workers of a farmstead in the Italian countryside—which introductory titles inform us is set in the 19th century and belongs to a landlord whose property they work in exchange for part of the harvest—plowing the earth, sowing seeds, harvesting corn, and slaughtering a waterfowl, as the children laughingly flit around the fields and submerge themselves in hay. Following this, the families convene in a barn and sing a song together while shucking corn before turning in for the night, crossing themselves and then crawling into bed. The film has only begun, but already Olmi has established its twin themes of land and religion.

Unlike Olmi’s more straightforwardly realist depiction of the hopeful beginnings of a clerical worker en route to a humdrum existence in his heartachingly lovely breakthrough Il Posto, Wooden Clogs—which won the Palme d’or at Cannes in 1978—contains moments like this of almost idyllic allure. The lives of peasant farmers aren’t characterized in clichéd salt-of-the-earth fashion, largely because Olmi so deliberately and elegantly balances them against descriptions of the basic realities and struggles the families face. Unfolding in mostly medium and long shots to convey their collective lot, under a seemingly perpetual morning mist, the film charts the daily negotiations and sacrifices the families make to stay afloat, as each choice or small shift in fortune possibly leads to financial ruin. No dramatic plot structures the narrative; the movie instead rises and falls according to the rhythms in the lives of its characters over the course of an approximate year.

Wooden Clogs focuses on two families in this community, one led by Batisti (Luigi Ornaghi) and the other by the Widow Runk (Teresa Brescianini), as she’s called. One day we might see the former’s pregnant spouse talking of foregoing a midwife in order to be able to afford warmer clothes for the other children, or the latter, supporting six children on her own with the help of their grandfather, Anselmo (Giuseppe Brignoli), agonizing over an offer made by Father Carlo (Carmelo Silva) to take her two youngest into the orphanage to relieve some of her pressure. A literal departure from all that has come before, the final act sees the voyage of a third family’s daughter, Maddalena (Lucia Pezzoli), to Milan with her new husband and arriving at a surprising financial arrangement. Compromising and weighing the economic outcome of every action is customary, a way of life for these families, and sometimes necessitates foregoing even the basics of food and clothing. A refusal to do without in one instance fuels Batisti’s fateful decision to chop down the titular tree out of which he carves clogs for his son to walk to school in, the determination to let the boy undertake an education itself previously fraught since doing so means having one less hand around the house and farm to help.

In these hanging-by-a-thread lives, wherein any whim of weather or illness can wreak havoc, religion plays a necessary, structuring role. For the characters, saying rosaries and crossing themselves are activities embedded in everyday routines (church bells constantly sound in the background as a reminder). Although The Tree of Wooden Clogs bears the hallmarks of its neorealist forebears, with its use of nonprofessional actors, location shooting, and focus on the working class, its documentary style is also sometimes subverted as Olmi strays to offer up a few moments of grace. The same night that Anselmo declares that “the earth needs the snow,” his prayers are answered in cinematically descriptive fashion; piano music from the landlord’s nearby-but-worlds-away estate, played by his son for a gathering of moneyed folk, scores the moment when the flakes start to fall. Olmi cuts to the sleeping bodies of the peasant farmers and their families, two or three to a bed, and the animals stirring in the barns outside. Finally, the grandfather wakes up to the magical sight.

But such impressionistic images are also grounded by the details of the processes involved in a working farm. One of the film’s main story arcs revolves simply around the development of Anselmo’s tomatoes. We witness him gathering chicken manure, fertilizing the soil to keep it from freezing in the snow, planting the seedlings, and finally taking the ripened produce to the market in town to sell. Another centerpiece is a collective act of slaughter—in the rain the men surround a pig and aid in its butchering as the women cleanse it with buckets of scalding water. The animal’s horrific screams pierce the soundtrack, and the level of anthropological attention paid as it’s gutted—Olmi allows the scene to play out for what feels like an interminable amount of time—might make even the most hardcore carnivore squeamish. Upon seeing the pig strung up, Father Carlo remarks, “There will be plenty of meat,” to which the farmer responds, “I know how it was raised. I cared for it better than any Christian.”

What was once considered the lot of the peasant has now to some extent been adopted by the privileged. A trend towards do-it-yourself action and consumption of locally sourced products is manifested in numerous ways in the modern world (at least in America), evident in urban chicken-raising, community gardening, farmer’s market shopping, canning, and ethical butchering movements. Such lifestyle choices are increasingly becoming the province of progressives concerned about the environmental costs of industrial agricultural practices and with enough time and money to support the higher costs of sustainable agriculture. But there’s nothing exotic about this dependence upon the earth for the peasant farmers depicted in Wooden Clogs; it’s a mode of survival, built into their existence practically from birth, children enlisted in the constant errands required in the running of a farming household from an early age. Although Olmi, who also wrote, photographed, and edited the film, poeticizes some aspects of the peasant farming community—perhaps a hazard of filming in such pastoral parts—he presents a clear-eyed portrait of the farmers’ relationship to the land as one that’s practical rather than mystically earthy; in doing so he affords them an astonishing humanity.