Ermanno Olmi, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 186 minutes.


AT THE START of Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 cinematic stay with peasants on a turn-of-the-century mezzadria, a farmer is up in arms about paying for his tiny son to attend school miles away. When the first day comes, and the boy walks through the courtyard shared by several families, Olmi tracks him via the father’s anxious point of view, all the way up to the gate. Money is one of his concerns—the estate landlord receives a percentage of all that is earned and produced—along with the loss of another pair of hands. But the felt worry is over the boy’s absence from the farm’s interdependent group, every day.

While “work” has long been the watchword for Olmi’s oeuvre, his three-hour-long Palme d’Or winner makes us aware of the families’ bonds of community and the space they share. Women work at looms singing together, men mobilize to slaughter a pig, and at night everyone gathers in one dim room to do piecework, chat, sing, and tell stories. A Lombardy native like his characters, Olmi doesn’t try to drive home their connectedness with showy solidarity or double-bind plots (though there’s a lot of ennobling, harmonizing Bach). When one family loses a father, the matriarch picks up and makes do, and the movie’s sweetest moment is when an eccentric oldster confides in his granddaughter the secret behind his early tomatoes.

Olmi took a year to edit the film, which he shot, to quote Kent Jones, “with the care that a Quattrocento master would have lavished on an episode in the life of Christ.” Not everyone has been as admiring: Dave Kehr sees Marxist sentimentalism in what’s “less an advance over the standard film festival peasant epic than an unusually accomplished rendition of it.” But Olmi, who most recently made a documentary about the slow-food movement, doesn’t omit ruptures from the canvas: A newlywed couple, journeying to Milan, is almost run down by cavalry charges in the streets. And the convent orphan whom they adopt is pronounced, unequivocally, “a peasant’s son” now, not a gentleman’s—which at least is one way of encapsulating Bernardo Bertolucci’s rich-man-poor-man capital-e Epic 1900 from two years before.

Nicolas Rapold

The Tree of Wooden Clogs plays Wednesday, August 11 at 7 PM at the 92YTribeca at 200 Hudson in New York. For more details, click here.