FilmJoshua Bullock

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

FilmJoshua Bullock
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
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The story is the seasons. The passing of time in the countryside outside Milan and the comings, goings, births and deaths among several peasant families in a sprawling communal farm holding. They are Lombardy tenant farmers working the land, moving in and out of barns and across a shared courtyard. It is the late 19th century though the way of life is as old as Man. Ermanno Olmi's film isn't polemic. This is not Fellini picking apart the social order. These families are made up of people who have things happen to them. Sometimes they can win themselves a victory, but ultimately they are subordinate to Nature. They must trust their fate to God, old wives' tales, stories of ghosts in the barn and the miraculous healing powers of a nearby stream. Men battle horses, birth calves and slaughter geese and pigs for the pot. Watch all of it, miss nothing. The performances are utterly convincing to the point it ceases to be film and becomes a honed form of documentary, lean and beautifully plotted, taking spring, summer, autumn and winter as its acts but never dropping into allegory. In many ways this is a nature documentary about human beings, if there can be such a thing, made up of that medium's close observation of process: baling hay, hand carving the wooden clogs of the title, putting a child to bed and folding the covers with four certain, economical, loving stokes. It is the stocky forearms of a widow washing clothes at a river. Unlike Fellini, there is no melodrama. Life is slow and when it is fast it is sudden, fierce and frightening. Let the film pull you slowly into it, ride the subtitles, put an afternoon aside (it's a long one) and settle into another world. This is utterly unique filmmaking, the wonderful coincidence and symphony of fabulous non-acting and the deftest, most natural editing of life's only story.