The Tree of Wooden Clogs, the 1978 Cannes Golden Palm winner, is a quietly stirring portrait of Italian peasant life, circa 1900. Unfolding as slowly as a flower in the morning, the story revolves around four families who live and toil on their wealthy landlord’s farm. There’s a political message to be found in their exploitation, but writer-director Ermanno Olmi doesn’t belabor the point. Instead, he focuses on the communal closeness and the religious faith that keep these people going.
Eschewing conventional dramatic development, Olmi gives us poetic slices of life in beautifully down-to-earth detail: A widow cares for her sick cow; a father cuts down one of the landlord’s trees to replace his son’s broken clog. This last act leads to repercussions that bring about the story’s somber resolution. By fade-out, one family’s fate is forever changed. But for the rest, the rhythms of life go on — shaped by daily routine, shifting with the changes in season. Therein lies this unusual movie’s poetry and profundity. A