Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

This tree bears glorious fruit

Cleveland Press October 9, 1979

Fewer movies have been done with greater sensitivity or integrity than "The Tree of Wooden Clog." Surely no three-hour movie has ever seemed so short and I I've seen some half-this length that have seemed to run twice as long.

The movie is a thoughtful, always fascinating look at peasant life in the Bergamo region of Italy in the late 19th Century, acted entirely by the peasants who live there now.

The film was written, directed, photographed and edited by Ermanno Olmi and the result is the personal statement by an artist of stature.

The characters are the families who live in a rural tenement, sharecroppers who must give two-thirds of their crops to the landlord.

Nothing happens to them in the sense of epic drama, nothing except that they go on living. There is a tyranny in people's lives that is in direct proportion to their poverty and for these people that tyranny is ever-present. And dealing with that tyranny is the stuff of which this often Iyrical drama is made.

It is more than the socio-economic system that grinds them down. There are nature, ignorance, superstition and the sheer desperation of making it from one day to the next.

But there exists, if not happiness, then at least contentment that they find in their families, their friends, their religion.

More than vignettes and less than full-scale plots are the stories of several families.

One has been advised by the priest to send their son to school, an unheard of practice for a peasant family. And this they try to do, even though it means less help in the farming. When the boy breaks one of his wooden clogs, his father cuts down a tree belonging to the landlord, a crime punishable by banishment and the loss of livelihood.

Another family is that of a widow and her six children. To earn a meager living, she scrubs clothes at the river's edge in all kinds of weather is faced with the possibility of placing her youngest children in an orphanage. The crisis comes when their cow seems to be dying.

Another story follows the restrained courtship of a young couple, their marriage and their honey moon in -- of all places -- a convent. There an orphan child is pressed on them for adoption, part of the lure being a regular stipend that will be given them for his support.

There are smaller tales of an old man whose life is tied up in raising bigger, better and earlier tomatoes; of another who finds a coin and hides it in the hoof of a horse and then furiously beats the horse when the coin is lost.

The events are those that mark the passage of time, the changes in the season -- planting, harvesting, the slaughter of a pig, grinding corn, a church festival.

While Olmi uses the neo-realistic technique of earlier Italian filmmakers, he blends with it a Iyricism and a sense of humanity. His photography is in soft pastels rather than lush colors, his people generally garbed in black.

The performances of these non-actors are neither wooden nor harshly realistic but have a low-keyed sensitivity mixed with great strength.

Soundtrack music is spare and is limited to a few organ passages by Bach.

The countryside, any countryside, and its people have seldom been quite so realistically or sensitively portrayed.