Watch “The Tree of Wooden Clogs,” an Italian movie from 1978, and you can learn a lot of things just by observing. For instance, it’s very bad when a cow won’t eat and can’t get up, and chicken manure might be the best thing to fertilize tomatoes; it’s stronger and it keeps the ground warmer in winter. Additionally, while poor tenant farmers tended their land the Bergamo province of Italy around 1900, a strong socialist fervor gripped the nation and caused the Italian police to be on high alert.
The movie, which is known as “L’albero Degli Zoccoli” in Italian, tells the story of four peasant families and their struggles to get through the year. The title refers to the father of one family, whose son walks 12 kilometers back and forth everyday to attend school. When the child’s wooden clog splits apart, the father cuts down one of the landlord’s trees to make him a new clog. This action is symbolic of a father’s pride and love for his family amongst continuing poverty and hardship.
Most remarkably, the director, Ermanno Olmi, cast actual peasants from the Bergamo region in all the acting roles. The actors speak the local dialect and seem perfectly suited to this environment. The film is mundane from start to finish, but so perfectly atmospheric with real-life characters that I couldn’t help but feel empathy for the people and their struggles.
The film displays a high amount of respect for the Catholic Church; it presents its priests, nuns and teachings in a very favorable light. The film treats landlords and the Italian authorities more harshly, and it especially emphasizes the matter-of-fact cruelty practiced against farm animals by the peasants. We witness a pig slaughter in detail, and a goose is also executed. By the end, even a city dweller like me feels like I spent a year on a farm.