(Originally posted on 1 March 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)
The Italian Neo-Realist movement began as a reaction to the more lightweight entertainments that usually focused on upper-class protagonists. In contrast, neo-realist directors such as Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica explored the poor and working-class Italy of the day, training their cameras on laborers and prostitutes instead of captains of industry and heiresses. Because of this, neo-realist filmmakers more often than not would forego the casting of name actors, preferring to find non-professionals who could embody the types of characters in the film.
Such was the case with Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), which was made a quarter century after the heyday of Italian Neo-Realism but nonetheless is very much in the same tradition. The Tree of Wooden Clogs captures life on a farmstead in Lombardy, Italy near the end of the 1800s, and Olmi’s cast is comprised entirely of real-life peasants. The film doesn’t attempt to tell a conventional story so much as intertwine the lives of the people who worked this land, raised their families and fought to survive, and while the cast of non-actors might not have worked for a more straightforward narrative, here it’s the right choice. Olmi directs each of his performers so that they feel perfectly natural and free of affectations.
The film’s most emotionally-involving plot strand involves a shy courtship between two teenagers, Stefano and Maddalena. Despite some initial awkwardness, they end up getting married. What’s fascinating about their wedding day is how modest it is compared to most people are used to in real life, much less Hollywood movies. But so it must have been among most poor people of the time, and everything that seems alien to modern audiences makes sense -- the small, early-morning church wedding, the sack lunches the newlyweds bring for their honeymoon, and so on. Even the honeymoon itself is consistent with the characters’ economic situation, with Stefano and Maddalena taking a barge to Milan to visit her aunt, Sister Maria, in a convent. While it’s only a few hours’ voyage to Milan, it’s entirely possible that this is the furthest either has ever been from home, and in fact Sister Maria states that “it’s been years since I saw my sister,” Maddalena’s mother.
After taking a tour of the convent, which is also an orphanage, they eat with the nuns (who sing them a hymn as they dine) and are taken to a small, Spartan bedroom. “We’ve never had newlyweds here before,” Sister Maria tells them. The next morning as they prepare for the trip home (tellingly, they wear the same clothes they came in), Sister Maria enters their room again, a child in her arms.
“His name is Giovanni Batista. He is 1 year old and in perfect health. Aren’t you, Giovanni Batista? He only needs real parents to make him happy, a real mother and father. He can already be a help to his family because he has an inheritance. He has good clothing and a little money which is passed to our institution twice a year. For a family of poor people, this could sometimes be a true gift of Providence. We must help each other in this world. He can be useful to you, and you can be very helpful to him.”
Maddalena then takes Giovanni in her arms and holds him close to her. In a Hollywood tearjerker this would probably be enough to elicit “awws” and sniffles from the audience. But if and when you watch The Tree of Wooden Clogs, pay attention to how Olmi’s camera focuses on the expression on Giovanni’s face. He doesn’t instantly take to Maddalena, but holds back for a few seconds, as if sizing her up. Finally, almost like he’s decided to accept her as his mother, he leans his head against Maddalena’s and relaxes.
I love this scene because of the way it turns an unexpected development into something lovely and sort of profound. It says a lot -- not just about these newlyweds, but about the culture in which they live -- that they so unconditionally accept Giovanni into their lives. The money promised them by Sister Maria plays a small role in their decision, I’m sure, but I’d say that their religious beliefs and values were a much bigger deciding factor. For many poor people, no matter where they live, faith is something that is very real to them, accepted rather than scrutinized and questioned. So it is with Maddalena and Stefano. On their first night as husband and wife, Sister Maria advises them, “may you always deserve God’s blessing.” In the minds of all concerned, Giovanni is just such a blessing.