[originally presented as a program note for the 1983 University of Washington film series “The Epic Tradition in World Cinema”]
“Those who are wretched are nearer to God.” A peasant woman speaks that line early in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, by way of chiding two of her numerous children for giggling at the simpleminded vagrant whose peregrinations intersect the course of the film from time to time. Taken in isolation, the line is open to dispute: are the random peasant types at the beginning of Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, for instance, imaginably nearer to God than the self-sacrificing governor who places himself (and his family, as it turns out) in jeopardy in their behalf? By reverse token, the line might be invoked as the keynote of any number of kneejerk-liberal tracts, at once patronizing and self-congratulatory, that propose or presume the moral and spiritual superiority of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Or it might be put in the mouth of a suffering peasant type for the purpose of irony—to nudge us toward an awareness of how religion can serve as “the opiate of the proletariat,” a formula of self-consolation that defangs the spirit of revolution and reform, and thus helps sustain corrupt sociopolitical systems.
I bring up these various possibilities simply for the purpose of clearing the boards: Ermanno Olmi doesn’t appear to have had any of these meanings in mind when he wrote that line, and by recognizing this we are brought nearer to an appreciation of what he achieves in his beautiful film. Not the least of its beauties is that the character who speaks the line probably doesn’t consider that it might apply to her and her fellow sharecroppers. Disprized they certainly are—working from sunrise to sunset and beyond, laboring for a harvest bounty of which they will be permitted to retain only a third. The rules of the game, like the odds, are against them. Break the rules, incur the landlord’s displeasure over the smallest matter, and retribution will be sweeping and immediate. Even survival militates against contentment: raise a family, keep them together, and you may find that you have more mouths to feed than you can sustain. The alternatives in such a case are to work oneself even nearer to death than before, or to surrender part of the family, hence part of oneself, to the custody of the Church. The Tree of Wooden Clogs ignores none of the cruelties of such a life, but neither does it portray characters given to self-pity or rationalizations of a higher rectitude. “Wretched of the earth” may describe their economic and political condition, especially to an observer of Olmi’s documentarylike images; it does not describe the condition of their souls.
Even that doesn’t quite take us to the heart of Olmi’s movie. Like any true epic, the film describes a religious itinerary, a journey that is made not so much by the characters in the film as by the artist who made the film and the people who watch it. This particular epic differs from, say, Sansho, The Searchers, and most of its other predecessors in this series, in that one aspect of our viewing/traveling experience consists in trying to sense out the story being told. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a long film (three hours) and its movement is slow. Little happens in the way of conventional narrative incident, and we need to watch for some time before we begin to figure out who the characters are among the five peasant families sharing the same farmstead, who’s related to whom, and what other sorts of relationships are going to be possible. Which is to say that The Tree of Wooden Clogs is like any other good film, at base: it embodies a world, a world which we can truly know only by brushing our preconceptions aside and letting that world define itself over a period of shared time and experience. Allow Olmi that time and you should come to agree with (and participate in) Andrew Sarris’s assessment: “A cinematic miracle. To see it is to be stirred to the depths of one’s soul.”
Above all, one has to get on to Olmi’s rhythms. It’s in rhythm, rather than any particular events or images or character’s experience, that the shape of this world is to be taken, the nature of Olmi’s perceptions felt and apprehended. Consider a passage like the children playing while the older sharecroppers are boosting hay into the loft. Both activities are part and parcel of the same shots, to the extent that a teenager, only recently delivered from the category of child, climbs up to the loft to redistribute the hay already lodged there, and takes a fresh forkful in the face; for an instant he doesn’t know which way to turn, which mode of behavior he belongs in, serious laborer or giggling kid. A moment later, the children are chasing a duck around the farmyard. It seems a whimsical business, until the duck is caught, hauled across the yard by one of the adults, and matter-of-factly decapitated. Not long afterward, a pig is slaughtered, and the process patiently observed by the camera, as by the children. The pig’s long dying is itself a source of nourishment to the farm commune; Olmi shows pans being brought from every household, that each may catch, in turn, some of the fresh blood from the neck wound. To paraphrase these actions as sacraments of life verges on triteness, yet the experience of watching their progress onscreen, of acquiring a cinematic equivalent of the peasants’ own point of view on these facts of growth and change, sustenance and death, is something markedly different from paraphrase. By the time the local priest himself wanders onto the scene, his presence serves not to make the point about the sacramental nature of these activities, but simply to confirm it: while the pig hangs flayed and steaming at screen-left, the priest stands at screen-right delivering a favorable report on the progress of the first peasant child to attend the local school.
In Olmi’s view, there is no good reason why such categories of experience should be separate. His film is so moving in its cumulative power because it intuits the interrelatedness of all things, all phenomena. Hence it is both comic and terrible that a peasant, upon losing the gold coin he has found and secreted, should turn upon his work horse, call it thief, and begin to beat it; and that the horse, in its rage and terror, should attack the man in return, charging after him even as its dray holds it back. In another key, it is appropriate that when Batisti chops down the tree to make a new clog for his son Minek, the stream nearby should carry away the wood chips that might betray his “crime”—an incidental manifestation of the priest’s linking air and water to miracles, and miracles to the strength of God’s love. As Batisti finishes making the clog, Olmi cuts to dazzling new greenery in the sun—fresh growth on a still-growing tree, and fields rife with crops—the music of Bach uninterrupted by the cut to new imagery, a new season, and the essentially same process.
At times these intuitions of connectedness pass over into mystery. The young couple who eventually marry set off on their honeymoon journey to Milan, a barge carrying them slowly through a landscape neither of them may have seen before. Another priest speaks of political turmoil in the countryside, and of farmsteads that have been burned in retaliation for peasants’ rebelliousness. From beyond the hills comes a faint rumble, and a great cloud of smoke. Neither we nor the couple will ever know precisely what that smoke was caused by. They will never know exactly why some horsemen clattered rapidly by in a side street in Milan, or why the roadway ahead should be blocked. Historical and political change might be in the air, change that could affect the system under which they and their forebears have lived for years. They would have no way of dealing with such change; we are rarely privy to the events that, somewhere beyond the horizon, alter the destinies and, perhaps, ‘way down the road, the character of our communities and work and lives. Other considerations impinge more directly. By a benevolent stroke of irony, the priest’s comment at the young couple’s wedding—”This couple isn’t trying to hide anything by being married so early in the morning”—drolly redounds on them at the orphanage in Milan: the couple who “had nothing to hide” will nevertheless return from their honeymoon with a child.
But for mystery and interrelatedness and intuition and the quiet miracle of Ermanno Olmi’s filmmaking, the premier passage in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, for me, will always remain the night scene about an hour into the movie. After an evening of courtship-in-famiglia, the young swain sets off along the road at night, singing, and singing just a bit louder when an animal sound he can’t quite place reaches him. Something attracts him to the landowner’s gate, and he sees, across the courtyard, the landowner himself, also prowling the night, enigmatically cut off from the musical soiree in progress in his own parlor. A dog barks warning, the landowner calls out, the young man retreats from the gate. In the barns, animals stir. A coachman waiting to drive his wealthy employers home steps to a tree to relieve himself. Midway through, he glances up: snow has begun to fall. The dog that had barked so bravely shrinks back, unaccountably chastened. In the peasants’ quarters, old Anselmo opens his eyes; he slips out of bed and goes to spread chicken droppings on his private garden. The droppings will keep warm the earth through winter, and in the spring he will have the first tomatoes.
THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS. Written, directed, photographed, and edited by Ermanno Olmi. Italy: Gruppo produzione Cinema, 1978. Music: Johann Sebastian Bach (performed by Fernando Germani). Art direction: Enrico Tovaglieri. Set designer: Franco Gambarana. Costumes: Francesca Zucchelli. Sound: Amedeo Casati. (185 minutes)
Cast: Luigi Ornaghi (Batisti), Francesca Moriggi (his wife, Batistina), Omar Brignoli (Minek, their son), Antonio Ferrari (Tuni), Teresa Brescianini (Widow Runk), Giuseppe Brignoli (Grandpa Anselmo), Carlo Rota (Peppino), Pasqualina Brolis (Teresina), Massimo Fratus (Pierino), Francesca Villa (Annetta), Maria Grazia Caroli (Bettina).
June 7, 1983
University of Washington Continuing Education Office of Cinema Studies
“The Epic Tradition in World Cinema”
Copyright © 1983 by Richard T. Jameson