The Tree of Wooden Clogs

This is one of the first foreign language films I saw, and despite its length, I remember being fascinated by it. Set in a farm settlement in 19th century Lombardy where the families have to give 2/3 of their produce to the landlord, it shows a year in the lives of 5 families. They live in an enclosed courtyard, with barns and stables down one side, facing 3 stories of accommodation, so there is little privacy,  and the courtyard is often the centre of activity.

It begins with the harvest, the families shucking the corn whilst singing, of the cavalcade of carts delivering their grain to the landlord and standing transfixed while a gramophone plays music.   

The peasants sit in the barn at night telling stories, singing songs and the women knit and crotchet. The film is a wonderful inspiration for yarn freaks, with bonnets, shawls etc. 

The film shows its age in the killing of a pig which pulls no punches on the animal welfare front. There is no doubt this pig objects to what they are doing to it, while children rush out with dishes to collect the blood. There is a young courting couple who eventually marry; they spend their first night together at her aunt’s convent in Milan, making much fuss about the reason for the early nuptials being to catch the boat rather than to cover up the event. When they leave the next morning, they are offered a toddler, a healthy young boy in need of a family; and the church will pay for his upkeep. I’ve never heard of such an arrangement, but seems a sensible arrangement for both sides.

The film used non professional actors, and if feels more like a documentary than drama. The mud, the rain, the anguish of the old man who finds a gold coin and struggles to find a safe place to keep it is hilarious and stupid. The widow struggling to support her kids by doing the washing, the little boy chosen to get an education despite them needing his labour and the long walk to school each day, there are so many interweaving stories. But mostly it’s a story of survival, of decent people struggling against the odds. It shows why so many people left Europe, and why we need to see films like this to keep us connected with the past.

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