When I learned I was in for three hours of Italian social realism with “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” (“L’Albero degli zoccoli”), I was worried, but this is a very unique movie and not at all what I expected.
“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is a movie without any plot in the traditional sense. Instead, we simply follow a group of peasants in the Bergamo region of Northern Italy some time near the end of the nineteenth century. And here I mean follow in a very literal sense. The camera is a fly on the wall, observing what is going on. There is no explanation, there is not progressive story or story arch, there is no melodrama. We simply see and experience the life of these peasants living as tenants in a larger structure (commune farm?) owned by the local landlord.
Life is hard and precarious for these peasants and even small misfortunes may be disasters when you are living on the edge of existence and therein lies the drama. There is no need for schemes or strange coincidences when a sick cow is enough to threaten very real ruin. Some disasters are averted, others not and when that happen, the consequences are fatal.
So, what we see is a series of vignettes that just depicts life. A pig gets slaughtered, a peddler comes by to sell cloth, one of the older peasants nurtures tomatoes in chicken dung and gets the fruit ready before the others. A young man approaches a young woman, and they fall in love and in a lengthy scene they get married and visit her aunt in Milano.
None of these scenes lead anywhere, there is no climax. It is simply an honest depiction of these people’s lives and as such this feels more like a museum than a movie. I went into this expecting melodrama and a string of misfortunes leading up to a big disaster, but that sort of cinema tropes does not fit at all this movie as they never fit real lived life. It is not nostalgic either. There is nothing of the cozying up to life in the past when everything was better. In that sense, this is a brutal movie where dung smells, and poverty is not fun at all. Sure, the community moves together, spend time with each other and try to help each other where they can, but not because of altruistic good, but because it is a means to survive. As peasants there is no way they can manage on their own.
This is realism and it is social in that it wants us to understand where these people are coming from, but it is a window more than an agenda movie. It does not judge but tries to be objective. People are not good or bad, they just are. If something is bad, it is the social structure that all these people are living in, that life may be so hard and so unprotected that even small problems may be disasters.
“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” won the Palme D’Or in 78 and has received a lot of acclaim. I can understand that and agree with a lot of it. As this window, this museum piece, it is hugely interesting, and I could imagine even more so for Italians trying to understand their past. I do like this sort or reenactment, and this is far more than old buildings and costumes but an actual understanding of the lives of these people. A critique though may be that with the absence of plot and story arc, three hours of running does feel like a long time. The question is how long time you really want to be in this museum.
The bottom line is that this is a very unique movie, and a very well and honestly made one. This never looks like amateurs in front of the camera and I do believe I am looking at life in the 1890’ies. That does deserve a lot of credit and I find it possible to live with and even appreciate the lack of a progressive story arc. It is a recommendation from me.