Ermanno Olmi's "The Tree of Wooden Clogs," at the West End Circle, is obviously a labor of love and an indisputably sincere work of art. Under those circumstances, one is bound to feel ignoble pointing out that the film degenerates into a righteous bore. But Olmi's artistry is scarely vivid or revealing enough to transcend the monotony of his good intentions.
A pastoral epic set in turn-of-the-century Italy and running a shade over three hours, "Clogs" attempts an episodic, piously respected depiction of the tribulations, simple pleasures and stoic resignation of a group of peasant families who reside communally and sharecrop on a large estate in Lombardy. Olmi, who usually works with non-professionals, has cast the picture with country people from the vicinity of Bergamo, his own hometown.
"Clogs" is meant to transport viewers into a harsh, bygone rural setting with an authenticity and tenderness inspiring nothing less than exaltation. It seems to have done so with the jury at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, where "Clogs" was awarded the grand prize.
But while it's easy to sympathize with Olmi's intentions, it requires a considerable amount of self-hypnosis to be satisfied by his anticlimactic form of dramatization. For example, the most dramatic episodes in the movie are gratuitous visceral spectacles: the slaughtering of a goose and the slaughtering of a pig. But Olmi neglects to show us whether any of the peasant families got to dine contentedly on these kills after they were made.
There's an epic impulse behind the film, and potentially compelling characters and conflicts dimly flicker inside it. But each remains sketchy and peripheral: the stalwart Batistis and their endearing little boy, who has just begun school; the widow struggling to keep her family together; the widow's eldest son, determined to do his bit by working as a mill hand; the grandfather with a passion for cultivating an early crop of fresh tomatoes; the shy young couple who eventually become newlyweds.
The title derives from a late-blooming, dubiously contrived crisis which leads to the peremptory eviction of the unprotesting Batistis. The little boy breaks one of his wooden clogs on his way home from school. To make him a new clog that night his father chops down a forbidden piece of timber and ultimately pays the penalty.
Olmi characteristically overlooks so many key expository details and obligatory scenes that it's never quite clear why Batisti needs to bludgeon an off-limits olive tree. There seems to be a fair amount of spare lumber lying around, and Batisti wastes most of the tree he furtively chops down. This rash, loving act might have more urgency if Olmi took a less absent-minded approach to storytelling.
In addition, Olmi imposes a sanctimonious tone on his shambling scenario, with sentiments like: "Those who are wretched are nearer to God" and "Only by loving our neighbor can we deserve god's love" and "Paradise starts with the love we show each other here on Earth." One gathers that Olmi speaks from the heart with these lines.
Yet for all its good intentions, the film never accumulates the documentary or poetic force achieved by James Agee in the text of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" or Luchino Visconti in the images of "La Terra Trema," to cite two successfully transcendent examples of the same impulse. One even grows a bit nostalgic for the melodramatic excesses and political engling that marred "1900" and "Padre Padrone."
Intent on depicting peasant life as a succession of hallowed rituals and memories, often literally reinforced by sacred organ music, Olmi finally cannot invest them with sufficient immediately and dramatic eloquence.
He doesn't persuade you that poverty merits such tender-hearted sentimentality. As many victims of the Depression recall, drudgery and deprivation and not heavenly character-builders, and there is no necessary dignity in wretchedness.
Indeed, "Clogs" is rather more convincing as a social document when it recognizes examples of the meanness and superstition rual poverty can impose. The outstanding case is the peasant who finds a gold coin, hides it inside the hoof of a horse and then gets furious at the horse when he discovers that this was not a foolproof hiding place.
When no one even bids farewell to the evicted Batistis, let alone protests the unfairness of their fate, it's difficult to share Olmi's exalted vision of their powerless way of life. On the contrary, one begins to suspect that the truly admirable drudges were the ones who had the imagination and gumption to pull up stakes and brave the New World, like the farm couple embodied by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman in "The Emigrants."