Tuesday 16 May 2017

1,001 Films: "The Tree of Wooden Clogs/L'Albero degli Zoccoli" (1978)

The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Ermanno Olmi's Palme d'Or-winning recreation of 19th century Lombardy life as enacted by latter-day residents of the region, preserves on celluloid - and makes unexpectedly involving - the daily routines of a small community of farm labourers: the harvesting (and the ruses employed to dodge landowners), the rustic childcare, the preparation of food (not for the squeamish, of course: animals were clearly harmed in the making of this film), even how the washing got done. A not untypical subtitle reads "I'm going to spread chicken manure on the vegetable patch." There's also time for a hesitant, chaste courtship, building towards a final section that finds a young couple honeymooning among nuns in the city, but Olmi is chiefly interested in the interaction between grown-ups, their offspring and the animals within this enclave's stone walls; the title refers to a present hand-crafted for a newborn, one which has consequences for the family at the drama's centre. 

It is, indeed, like very little else in cinema - a period movie seemingly unfolding in the present tense - although the time-capsule fascination it exerts could reasonably be compared to spending the day at Beamish, Ironbridge Gorge, or any of those other working historical towns: if anything, this is even more authentic, because the figures in the frame have this life in their blood. (Presumably, they had only to ask their parents and grandparents by way of character research.) This sort of material traditionally appeals to the conservative in us all, offering as it does a return to the simple life, a reconnection with the soil, and a sense of long-lost community. (One of the last lines is a ruefully spoken "There's no faith now, nor respect for one's neighbour".) Yet Olmi's legacy would seem less the prettified, Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources school than Bela Tarr's muddy agricultural epic Satantango (whose characters share the Lombardians' deep-rooted superstition) or subsequent reality-television endeavours where pampered city dwellers are forced to abide by the traditions of the past: projects with some grasp of the hardships that follow from living off the land. For better and worse, this is what it was really like, you feel.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs is available on DVD through Arrow; a Blu-Ray will be released through Arrow Academy on August 7.

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