Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978)

Nearly 30 years after neorealists Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica first pioneered the practice, Ermanno Olmi’s intensely personal 19th-century rural epic The Tree of Wooden Clogs broke new ground in completely replacing professional actors with amateurs. The film greatly divided critics along its path to a Palme d’or win at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.

Devoutly Catholic, Olmi’s films exude an openly warm relationship with Christianity and the church, and celebrate working-class lives as tough but hopeful existences in which miracles might cut through the mundane at any moment. Criterion’s new release of The Tree of Wooden Clogs coincides with a recent minor resurgence of iconic moviemakers “picking up their crosses” to make films about Christianity, from Martin Scorsese’s similarly long-gestating Silence, to Paul Schrader’s exploration of his Calvinist roots with the forthcoming First Reformed, to Terrence Malick’s newfound energy for production (all filmmakers who came to form in the 1970s, interestingly enough.)

Criterion’s 4K restoration of The Tree of Wooden Clogs includes an alternate Italian-language soundtrack; a new introduction by moviemaker Mike Leigh; an hour-long 1981 episode of The South Bank Show entitled “Ermanno Olmi: The Roots of the Tree”; a new program featuring cast and crew discussing the film at the Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, Italy in 2016; interviews with Olmi; a booklet essay by film critic Deborah Young and more.

Lessons in Finding Your Story

Olmi has a soft spot for the people of the northern Italian Lombard region, where he grew up and where most of his films take place. “These were people who knew how to confront life. People like my grandmother,” Olmi explains in an interview included on the disc. Olmi’s grandmother is at the center of The Tree of Wooden Clogs. He further explains just how embedded her influence was in the project: “My grandmother is not just one character in my film. She is to be found in many different characters. The widow is my grandmother and so is the young Maddalena.”

It took Olmi nearly 25 years to feel ready to make this film, and he boasts that he never had to perform any sort of “scientific, historical or sociological research” on the story, that it was all there within him: “I made a treasure chest of all of those emotions,” he says in the interview. “All of those memories of what life was like in those times, I turned them into my narrative.” Aspiring moviemakers should look to Olmi, then inward, and ask, “What is it that makes me unique? What do I have to say? What is it about my history, my family, my region that will grant me my distinct storytelling angle?” Tell that story.

Lessons in Wearing All of the Hats

While conventional wisdom (including ours here at MovieMaker) preaches moviemaking as a collaborative effort, extolling the virtue of a second set of eyes for any aspect of the process, The Tree of Wooden Clogs is written, directed, shot and edited by Olmi. It’s made clear in his interviews that there was no other choice for him. This approach saved money, allowing Olmi to maintain the creative control that was so important for these less commercially viable projects. It allowed him to insist on using the Bergamasque dialect of this northern Italian region, so this “Italian” movie had to be subtitled for Italians (Mel Gibson isn’t the only hardcore Catholic producing successful films in dead languages.)

The multi-hatted approach also helped Olmi streamline a sensibility that is remarkably his own, and his touch is felt in each observable creative decision. Author John Steinbeck lays out a similar theory for individual control in his rural epic East of Eden: “Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”

Lessons in Ignoring the Zeitgeist

Whereas other Italian moviemakers were increasingly engaging in political moviemaking and exploring their Marxist leanings, Olmi had no interest in this practice of art as call-to-action, choosing instead, as Deborah Young explains, to live “in self-imposed isolation in the Dolomites, high on the Asiago plateau,” avoiding the cultural film hub of Rome. Critics and “city thesps,” as Mike Leigh describes them in his interview, misinterpret Olmi as an unnecessarily nostalgic observer of a life that has all but been erased. The truth is that Olmi celebrates these peasants’ lives while also understanding why the world was moving in the directions that it was. The subtlety of his characters’ actions paint a nuanced picture of how people eventually chose to exist in an increasingly bureaucratic, urbanized world that had no place left for rural life. Despite this understanding, in the 2008 video interview, Olmi declares, “I firmly believe that peasant culture in the world is, at this point in humanity, the only ‘culture’ worthy of that name.” A bold statement from a bold moviemaker.

Amidst our current partisan political climate here and abroad, it seems inevitable that a slew of politically pointed films are being produced that will reflect this turbulent time for artists. Olmi argues, through his oeuvre, that perhaps a more effective method in times like these is to avoid the big, confrontational narrative altogether and instead focus on how your personal ties to humanity can assist in your on-screen exploration of your relationships to your fellow man. This approach may be more poignant than any angry, overt political statement and could lend your project a timelessness that could withhold decades of scrutiny and astound new viewers with its enduring relevance. 

Special Features

The special features on the disc are overflowing like Canaan’s milk and honey. Young’s booklet essay never seems to quit unfolding in length, and numerous video interviews give unrivaled glimpses into what made the notoriously press-shy Olmi tick. (We get to hear him speak about the film around the time it was released, and then later toward the end of his career in 2008, as he reflects on the magical nature of the production.) Despite his reputation as a humble soft-spoken individual, Olmi frequently works himself up into a frenzy in the 2008 interview, vehemently going after entrenched bourgeois notions on making art and the film scene whose key players couldn’t comprehend his viewpoint at the time of The Tree of Wooden Clogs‘ release. Young’s essay is a great table-setter for those unfamiliar with Olmi, exploring his relationship to his region, the working class and Italian cinema as a whole, while also engaging with pivotal moments in the film.

While the celebrity moviemaker interviews on Criterion discs often serve little more than an endorsement for newcomers, British director Leigh’s breaks the mold, as he makes impassioned arguments for how every facet of Olmi’s film works. Leigh’s energy is infectious as he waxes poetic about the “immaculate performances” of the amateur actors, and how, “There’s no way there’s a single performance in the film where you would say, ‘Well, that’s obviously an amateur.’ They are real down to their fingertips, and it’s a miracle as far as I’m concerned.” On Olmi’s cinematography, Leigh adds: “There’s never a fancy shot. There’s never a shot from the wrong, or a peculiar, or highly sophisticated and bizarre angle. There’s never a tracking shot where it doesn’t need to track… It’s always organic. It’s always absolutely the camera serving the truth of what’s going on. Therefore, speaking as a filmmaker, it’s always the content of what’s going on, serving the camera.”

An interview with Olmi at Cannes does well to help capture that initial energy that surrounds a festival film poised to capture the top prize. In fact, in the panel introduction to the festival interview, one panelist is so exuberant about this film he just saw, he can scarcely stop talking lest his co-panelists get a word in and interrupt his chain of fervent observations.

In the hour-long television program in which Olmi revisits the farm on which he shot the film, the director spills great details about the pre-production process, as well as the shoot.

The disc’s 2016 interview with the cast and crew post-screening at the Cinema Ritrovato film festival contains an abundance of heartwarming anecdotes about Olmi and their involvement in the film, as well as great insights into Olmi’s working process. Fiorella Lugli recounts her frustration when the remarkably laid-back Olmi promoted someone with no experience to be the crew’s prop master. But she found it hard to stay mad at someone as tender as Olmi, who had a track record of having things almost always work out. One panelist recalls how Olmi had the actors go into their basements and bring out old furniture and props to help create a more authentic set. Omar Brignoli who plays Minec, the little boy with the titular wooden clogs, recalls falling asleep during the premiere and how newspapers wrote about it the following day. (He defends himself with the simple, humorous assertion that he was eight years old at the time.)

The Takeaway

There is almost too much to unpack in Olmi’s greatest film and the accompanying special features on this disc. Their list of lessons in inducing empathy; blazing your own path in the face of current trends; avoiding scene-stealing flashiness; retaining near-complete creative control throughout production and more is ever-growing. Olmi’s portrayal of working-class citizens maintains such a deft touch that extends beyond how the peasants interact with each other (the script), highlighting the importance of its (never unwarranted) camera movement and of how the its editing choices never linger unnecessarily on the peasants’ pain.

Olmi is such a unique and compelling figure in the Italian cinema world that it would be a shame for independent moviemakers to overlook him and privilege only the more canonized neorealists, or Olmi’s more politically motivated contemporaries. As Mike Leigh joyously exclaims in bewilderment, “How he achieves it? I don’t know.” This Criterion Blu-ray certainly contains many of the clues for an budding moviemaker to take a swing at answering that elusive question. MM

The Tree of Wooden Clogs was released by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD February 14, 2016. All images courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

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