Among important Italian directors, Ermanno Olmi occupies a curious middle ground. Critics and fans alike may sense that his works offer more substance than many – indeed, perhaps even the majority of – films of the past half-century, but Olmi has yet to make it into the hallowed pantheon of Fellini, Rossellini, Visconti and de Sica.

One can only speculate on the reason for this. First, there is the box office-fact that he was generally more popular at home than abroad. Perhaps the sheer eclecticism of his film subjects has denied historians the convenience of a uniform identity for his body of work. Perhaps his fidelity to his documentarian roots, including his renunciation of fiction late in life, has clouded his image as a creator. Or perhaps the unabashed embrace of his childhood Catholic faith fails to resonate in an irony-loving age.

Make no mistake: Olmi has always had his enthusiasts. Al Pacino called the work that is the focus of this article perhaps his all-time-favourite film,1 and he is certainly not alone. But there are signs that even further reconsideration may be at hand following Olmi’s death last year at the age of 86. An outpouring of praise followed the announcement: Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, called him “one of the great maestros of Italian cinema,”2 while the Italian-American director Martin Scorsese issued a statement referring to Olmi as “one of the last of the great directors of the ’60s.”3 These posthumous encomia plus a fresh series of retrospectives may trigger a new look at Olmi’s career, with a potential escalation in popularity and critical assessment.

Of the more than 90 films made in his long professional life, none has a greater chance of boosting him into the company of Italy’s legendary film directors than L’albero degli zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs), Olmi’s three-hour depiction of the lives led by Italy’s late 19th-century peasant population, a masterpiece of neo-neorealism and a brilliant act of cinematic humanism.

The film’s setting is the flatlands of Bergamo in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, an area where Olmi was born in 1931, and to which he returned as a permanent resident following a long sojourn in Milan, where his father had moved the family when Olmi was only three. While working for Volta Edison, the huge utility that employed so many milanesi, Olmi taught himself filmmaking in order to create documentary shorts for the company. This effort culminated in a 1959 feature-length docu-style drama about winter caretakers of an Edison-Volta hydroelectric dam. Olmi called it Il tempo si è fermato (Time Stood Still).

Two early notable works followed: Il posto (The Job) (1961), about a young man from the country struggling with his soul-crushing position in a Milanese corporation; and I fidanzati (The Engagement) (1963), which explores the problems of an engaged couple’s long-distance relationship when the groom-to-be must relocate from Milan to Sicily to earn more money. Both films followed the neorealist tradition of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica in using a non-professional cast (the same would hold true 15 years later in The Tree of Wooden Clogs). Of Il posto, The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther found that the director’s “skill at directing inexperienced actors is manifest in the sensitive performances of all the actors.”4

Olmi’s Catholic faith doubtless influenced his decision to accept an assignment to direct an ill-conceived biography of Pope John XXIII starring Rod Steiger, E venne un uomo (A Man Named John, 1965). Over the next four decades, he would film multiple projects for both television and theatrical distribution with a remarkable variety of subjects. Notable features included Un certo giorno (One Fine Day, 1968), about a simple man whose life changes after he receives a promotion; La leggenda del santo bevitore (The Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1988), a moving adaptation of Austrian novelist Joseph Roth’s curious story about a homeless alcoholic striving to repay a debt to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (known to Catholics as “the Little Flower”); Il mestiere delle armi (The Profession of Arms, 2001), a historical drama set in 16th-century Rome about the introduction of deadly light cannons to European warfare that Variety described as “a deeply humanistic meditation on war and death”;5 and his last feature-length release, Torneranno i prati (Greenery Will Bloom Again, 2014), a World War I anti-war drama set in the trenches on the Italian front.

The view that Olmi’s masterpiece is The Tree of Wooden Clogs, however, remains virtually unopposed. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the film is a frank paean to the strength, courage and survival instincts of the peasant class whose labour fed and clothed Italy for centuries. The setting is a cascina, a building that housed the farmers who tended the animals and worked the fields of an estate owned by a landlord. The focus is on four families who live there. Daily life is hard, and Olmi spares his audience nothing: viewers should be warned of—and be prepared to look away from—the live filming of the decapitation of a goose and the unedited slaughter of a pig.

Yet existence is replete with graces: the beauty of the land, the rituals of the seasons (the first snowfall is magical, while spring is introduced with a charming combination of bees and Bach); the simple pleasures of one another’s company in the stable, where neighbor Batistì (Luigi Ornaghi) weaves storytelling spells nightly; the hypnotic sounds of beautiful music coming mysteriously from the owner’s new gramophone. Faith is more than important – it supplies an omnipresent support that clearly is indispensable.

No one seems to question, or even detect, the subtext of injustice underlying their existence. When newlyweds visit Milan and a troop of soldiers on horseback races through the streets in opposition to demonstrators, the couple stays out of the way by hugging the wall; the move is both literal and symbolic. By the end of the film we come to understand that, in the lives of these humble people, death is not the only source of tragedy.

Olmi’s style in The Tree of Wooden Clogs has often been described through the years as painterly. The label is deserved, but not just for the landscapes; the extraordinary faces of the non-professional cast suggest the work of the Old Masters just as cogently. The neorealist preference for populating casts with real people – native stone of the region, as it were – is realised with uncanny success in The Tree of Wooden Clogs; indeed, it may be doubted that the practice has ever been surpassed.

The words of praise elicited by Olmi’s death included these from then Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni: “His enchanted gaze told us and made us understand the roots of our country.”6 In The Tree of Wooden Clogs, those roots are deep and universal.

• • •

L’albero degli zoccoli (The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978 Italy 186 mins)

Prod Co: RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana Dir: Ermanno Olmi Scr: Ermanno Olmi Ed: Ermanno Olmi Phot: Ermanno Olmi Prod Des: Enrico Tovaglieri Prod Mgr: Alessandro Calosci, Domenico Di Parigi, Attilio Torricelli Snd: Italo Cameracanna, Amedeo Casati, Aldo Ciorba

Cast: Luigi Ornaghi, Francesca Moriggi, Omar Brignoli, Antonio Ferrari

Endnotes:

  1. A.A. Dowd, “A Clunky Title Can’t Dilute the Power of This Ambitious ‘Peasant Epic’,” The A.V. Club, 2 October 2014, https://film.avclub.com/a-clunky-title-can-t-dilute-the-power-of-this-ambitious-1798272665
  2. Dario Franceschini, quoted in “‘Maestro of Italian Cinema’ Ermanno Olmi Dies,” The Local, 7 May 2018, https://www.thelocal.it/20180507/italian-cinema-ermanno-olmi-dead
  3. Martin Scorsese, quoted in Rhett Bartlett, “Ermanno Olmi, Palme d’Or-Winning Director of The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Dies at 86,” The Hollywood Reporter, 7 May 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/ermanno-olmi-dead-palme-dor-winning-director-tree-wooden-clogs-dies-at-86-1109071
  4. Bosley Crowther, quoted in Sam Roberts, “Ermanno Olmi, Whose Films Captured Humble Lives, Dies at 86,” The New York Times, 8 May 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/obituaries/ermanno-olmi-whose-films-captured-humble-lives-dies-at-86.html
  5. David Rooney, “Profession of Arms,” Variety, 17 June 2001, https://variety.com/2001/film/reviews/profession-of-arms-1200468754/
  6. Paolo Gentiloni, quoted in Bartlett, op. cit.

About The Author

Joseph Sgammato has written for Sight and Sound, The Wordsworth Circle, The College Language Association Journal, and other publications. He teaches English and Film at Westchester Community College, a division of the State University of New York, in Valhalla, New York and lives in Norwalk, Connecticut.