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The Tree of the Wooden Clogs

September 1, 2015

TTOWCOlmi is also a fervent Catholic, and the film, with its warm depiction of traditional Catholic faith and piety as an integral part of the rhythms of peasant life, and its distinct lack of violent revolutionary spirit, has widely been regarded as a gentle Catholic counterpoint to angry Marxist peasant cinema.

Not that Marxist and Catholic themes have never been combined in other films. But real Marxist ideology can only be interested in Catholicism for its social thought, not its traditional expressions of piety or faith. Likewise, a believing Catholic might identify with Marxist social or economic thought — as indeed Olmi, who is said to call himself a Marxist, seems to have done — but would reject Marxism’s atheistic and anti-religious ideology, and certainly in Olmi’s case its insistence on violent class conflict.

Olmi’s peasant families chant the rosary together as they work; they attend Mass, and the local priest is an important figure in their lives. In one of the film’s best sequences, a young newlywed couple takes a boat ride to Milan to visit a convent where one of them has an aunt who is a nun. Needless to say, a convent is hardly the ideal setting for a couple on their wedding night; but the sisters do their best, pushing together a pair of twin beds and adorning the headboards with a homespun bouquet in tribute to the sanctity of matrimony.

When revolutionary motifs are expressly introduced, Olmi illustrates the lack of connection between such ideas and the lives of his characters. In a sequence at a local fair, a socialist speaker addresses the crowd, yet Olmi’s attention is on a man in the crowd who pretends to be paying attention while actually surreptitiously trying to pick up a gold coin on the ground. Later, in the sequence with the couple in Milan on their way to the convent, there are signs of revolutionary violence and clashes between demonstrators and police, yet the couple pass obliviously on their way to the convent.

Yet the devastating final act, and the light it sheds on the meaning of the title, make it clear that Olmi is as acutely aware as the most rabid socialist of the harsh economic and social injustices under which his peasants stoically suffer. The land they work belongs to a rich landlord who appears in the story only as a distant, pitiless figure who takes a whopping two-thirds of the harvest and whose dire justice is untempered by the slightest mercy or compassion. Olmi’s film may be devoid of violent revolutionary spirit, but his stark refusal in any way to soften or mitigate the catastrophic consequences of a morally justifiable but socially unacceptable act make resignation an impossible response for the viewer, if not for the characters.

All the actors were real peasants from the Bergamo province, in Italy. They had no acting experience at all.

First and only movie to be entirely spoken in Bergamasque dialect.

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