A rural setting and peasant milieu, a documentary-like feel with authentic locations and a cast of non-professional actors, and a concern with matters of social justice are all common characteristics in Italian neorealist cinema. Yet most important Italian directors are themselves from wealthy backgrounds. They are also generally Marxists.
Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, which follows the lives of three peasant families in turn-of-the-century Lombardy for approximately one year, is unusual among Italian peasant epics in that its director is of peasant stock, and the narrative, based on his grandmother’s stories of rural life, reflects his family’s own experiences.
Olmi 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, specifically Bertolucci’s thematically similar Novecento.
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. (Warning: Vague but definite spoilers ahead.)
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.
Critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader calls The Tree of the Wooden Clogs "less an advance over the standard film festival peasant epic than an unusually accomplished rendition of it," and speaks of a "Marxist sentimentalism" inherent in its subject matter and approach. This seems to me misleading. Olmi’s film may be best thought of, not as an attempted advance over the typically Marxist neorealist peasant epic, but as a redemption of it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.