It wouldn't be right to call The Tree of Wooden Clogs an epic, though it's certainly tempting. After all, the film sports a large cast, immaculate period detail, and a three-hour run-time. But what we have on screen is far too unassuming; Tree uses its length not to cover an epic sweep or ride a historical crest, but to simply immerse its audience in another time and place. That time and place is a community of Italian peasants at the dawn of the 20th century; we rarely leave their land, and neither do they, but we see them live and work, and observe the issues that define them. This is not to say that the film has no narrative—on the contrary, it has many, some running the entire film, some only lasting a scene, and all a model of simplicity. But its narratives are decentralized and carry none of the unnatural urgency that we're accustomed to at the movies. And so as time passes, a widow tries to make ends meet, an eager young man and a traditional young woman share a timid courtship, and a father sends his intelligent young son to school, but breaks the rules of the manor when he needs to get the child a new pair of shoes. As these threads and more branch and flower, The Tree of Wooden Clogs accomplishes a very rare and special feat: it comes as close as cinema can to capturing the rhythm and flow of life itself, and it does so without losing its audience on one end or its honesty on the other.
The best way to first approach the film is through its director, Ermanno Olmi, and the way he made it. Italian cinema has no shortage of titans, and Olmi has unfortunately had to exist largely in the shadow of more famous (and flashier) contemporaries like Fellini and Bertolucci. But The Tree of Wooden Clogs, arguably his masterpiece, won the top prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, and it remains an essential if tragically under-viewed classic. The son of two factory workers from a peasant family—echoed in the young boy?—Olmi entered the film world making documentaries before he crossed over to drama. This origin is significant, as much of Tree is shot with a documentarian's eye for finding spectacle in ritual, and for finding empathy not in characters, but in people. Indeed, there isn't really an "actor" in sight. To make the film, Olmi returned to his hometown of Bergamo, and cast his period piece not with professional actors, but with the local townsfolk themselves.
This approach is not unique in Italian cinema; the Neo-Realists like Rossellini and De Sica pioneered a similar method in the years following World War II. But Tree, which gives the town top billing in the credits, and which respects all individuals on screen but doesn't allow anyone to become the "main character," represents an egalitarian apex of this art form. Olmi never requires anything particularly actorly of his subjects (a big soliloquy, say), but their performances carry a remarkable presence and depth of feeling that goes beyond craft. Olmi's own presence is, fittingly, all but invisible. His coup as a director is to make his performers feel natural in front of the camera, so that their authenticity is never doubted. His coup as a storyteller is to balance the narratives and scenes of daily life, so that the film unfolds gradually but never loses focus.
But as for the message, the film plays a light hand. Tree came out at a volatile time in Italy's history and was attacked by critics on the Italian left, who faulted its lack of political engagement and saw it as a story of passively accepting the social order. But looking at the film, one could just as easily see the opposite: while it avoids anger and refuses to charge into the breach, the awareness of inequality running throughout the entire film is far from passive. But of course, experiences vary: the British critic David Thomson calls the film's view of serfdom "much too polite," Roger Ebert recommends watching it apolitically, and the New York Times' Vincent Canby sees politics in nearly every scene. That it allows for different responses is a testament to a very calm and nuanced historical portrait—and to how deceptive the word "simplicity" can be.
Because above all, this is a film that asks us to watch, not just to look at the Italian countryside (unadorned, earthy, and beautiful) but to see the significance that is rarely underlined under each vignette. Look at the peasants' Christmas celebration, and the way they stop to listen to music from the manor, and you'll become achingly aware of a gap in wealth and privilege that they've long since accepted. Contrast all the superstitions and folklore with the scene where the newly-educated son tells his family about bacteria ("tiny animals in the water"), and you'll see the transition their world is in. Note how a Marxist preacher accompanies a traveling carnival—and is met with the same detached curiosity—and you'll get a shaded view of a country in political limbo. But never, in all this awareness of history and politics, does it lose its focus on the people themselves, whose stories are the film's top priority, and whose identity is at once personal and communal. This is one of the great masterpieces of humanism, deserving a place alongside Renoir's Grand Illusion and Ozu's Tokyo Story. It is indeed a large or grand film, but its humility is also something to treasure. Films like this are always in too short a supply.