Ermanno Olmi is a director who has raised the moral bar for contemporary Italian cinema. The sacredness of life, the dignity of work, and the human yearning for contact with God are themes that deeply color his work, but nowhere so movingly as in The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), which has a vibrant realism that makes the audience feel that they are shoulder to shoulder with its protagonists, the dirt-poor northern Italian sharecroppers whose deep, abiding faith is extraordinarily moving.
Although Olmi’s films shine with the light of his strong Christian faith, they are never sectarian and never exclude the nonreligious viewer from their luminous storytelling and fablelike powers of fascination. He has set out on a lifelong quest to find a deeper truth in humble, everyday characters and settings, a search strongly influenced by the humanist work of the neorealist masters Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, who just preceded his arrival on the cinema scene. It is a search that has taken him on a very different path from that of his fellow directors. Though he has walked down a few blind alleys in his over-sixty-year career, he has also authored some of Italy’s most memorable films. Among them, The Tree of Wooden Clogs is widely considered his masterpiece.
Written and directed with inspired simplicity, the story of four peasant families who live and work on a tenant farm in late nineteenth-century Lombardy offers an almost documentary glimpse into a long-gone way of life. With their rough, ruddy faces, the farmers have a look of callus-handed realism that we recognize out of period paintings. No nostalgia here: there is joy and beauty in their lives, and even some homey humor, but above all there is bitter poverty and exploitation. The peasants, whom we get to know intimately over the course of three hours, labor for a landlord who owns the fields they till, the dwellings where they raise their families, their stables and livestock, and even the trees lining the road. When the harvest is in and the hogs are butchered, two-thirds goes to him, leaving them with barely enough food to survive.
“Ever since he first picked up a camera, Olmi has made observation a moral principle.”