Truth and Beauty
The Tree of Wooden Clogs Directed by Emanno Onni at the Orson Welles
SOMETIMES I go to the Orson Welles, like when someone forces me to or it's free. I'm always afraid I'm going to lose control at the Orson Welles, lose control and scream "Bergman stinks" as I hurl the coffee-maker against the t-shirt display on the art deco wall. However this reaction isn't entirely the fault of the Welles, which I believe was named the Real Paper's Most Smug Theater of 1976. I learned to fear so-called "art films" and the theaters that screen them at a very early age, when I was dragged to a seedy little known theater in Detroit to see a "beautiful and sensitive film" and enrich my culturally deprived life. This place was formerly a neighborhood show that had been forced out of business by television, but with foresight that soon proved brilliant, the owners had installed an espresso machine, hung up some foreign posters, raised the admission and re-christened it the Studio Theatre. It soon became a haven for arty types from nearby Wayne State University and other hangovers from the "beat" generation. The message here seemed to be that if it was seedy and depressing, it was art, for the film, like the lobby, was dark, dank, and depressing. I left that theatre with an abiding distaste for beautiful, sensitive films, theatres of that genre, and espresso. And these dislikes, though I seldom admit it out loud in this community of sophisticated film-goers, have remained with me through the years despite all the attempts to "turn me on to Bergman" by various friends who took VES 151.
Until now, Not only is Ermanno Omni's The Tree of Wooden Clogs at the Orson Welles, it has also been proclaimed as both beautiful and sensitive by reviewer after reviewer. But don't let that stop you from seeing it. It was so good I didn't even eat my popcorn. It was so good I would buy an Orson Welles t-shirt advertising it. It was so good I plan to go back to the Orson Welles and pay money to see it again. That's how good it is.
The first few minutes of the film set the tone for the miracle that follows. Simple peasants in turn-of-the-century Italy harvest corn accompanied by a wildly triumphant organ, Bach at his exultant best. Each frame of the film could have been the master work of a Rembrant. The combination brought my emotions to my throat where, throughout the rest of the film, they threatened to burst forth like rainbows and flowers from the top hat of a Peter Max figure. And I'm not kidding.
THE STORY, what there is of it, revolves around four peasant families who toil for the same landowner in the Lombardy section of Italy. Their homes, stables, most of their livestock, and the land they work belongs to the landowner, for which he gets two-thirds of their crops. The rest of the world barely exists for these people. The political unrest of the time goes by practically unnoticed--the families are touched by the outside world only twice during the year or so the film portrays, once when a newlywed couple journeys to nearby Milan where troops march a group of demonstrators to their doom, and again when a village festival brings angry young orators who give speeches about human rights and democracy. Blank faces watch the troops and the speakers: the troops are soon eclipsed by the wonders of the city and the angry speeches no longer heard when someone spots a gold coin lying unclaimed on the ground. And though the ending hints at some stirrings of unrest among the families after one of their group has been evicted by the landowner, this in not a film about politics, oppression, human rights, class struggles, or mean landlords vs. good peasants.
This is a film about love and families and the faith that keeps the lives of a group of peasants together. Prayer punctuates their daily lives like the motif in the Bach concerto underscores their joys and sorrows. A woman angrily exhorts the Lord to save the life of her cow; her prayer reprimands a God who would let the only cow of a widow with six children become ill. The Pater Noster becomes a magic spell chanted in Latin by the local healer, and always there are the endless "Ave Marias," with the accent heavily on the Ave, which are brought forth, like my old Irish Grandmother's frequent "Mother of God!" for any occasion and every reason, to curse or to praise or simply to signal the beginnings of the rosary. Endless rosaries are said, too, upon waking, before sleeping, and just for fun sitting around the fire with the neighbors. The film makes you realize that religion must have indeed been logical and practical to have survived in the hard lives of these people. In fact religion of these Italian peasants fits the pattern of their daily lives so closely that the dividing line between the temporal and the spiritual ceases to exist. When an old man plants his tomatoes near the stable wall "to keep them warm" as he tells his granddaughter; when a hardworking father gazes in unabashed love at his son studying by the fireside; every time the children splash through the ever-present mud puddle in the stable yard: their faith is celebrated in everything they do. It's a faith of growing things and cycles that originated long before Christianity and is rooted in the soil as soundly as are these four families.
The film moves through harvest and winter and spring with only a thin thread of plot, recounting every day events along with a few more important ones. The result is that you feel the lives of the people, instead of just seeing them. What at first were lumpy bodies with non-descript faces become as real to you as your roomate through Omni's brilliant creation. The work is all Omni who, besides directing, wrote and filmed Tree. The cast, non-professional, which may account for the subtlety and dignity with which the characters were portrayed. Not once was piety overdrawn or intelligence underdrawn. The dialogue and (blessedly) the sub-titles were kept at a minimum. Omni instead relied on inspired camera work to tell his story. The lighting alone was probably enough to justify the Golden Palm award this film received at Cannes last year.
So now, I'm stuck. I have to call this film beautiful. There is no other word for it that isn't equally overused. It was magnificent, stupendous, moving, and had a profound effect on my soul. It was sensitive. And it makes me think perhaps I may have been overly sensitive about sensitive, beautiful films. Maybe I shouldn't have avoided so many of them. Then again, maybe this one was a rare act of genius.