There’s a number of films in the Book that have seemed so innocuous and unremarkable at first glance that they are quickly skimmed over in favor of other more well-known, appealing entries. On occasion, after seeing one of these films, that I had barely even registered had been in the Book at all, I find a real hidden gem, one so surprisingly good that I find it a little disappointing that I had never heard of it until then. Well, that’s what the Book is there for, I guess, and I’ll be a happy camper if it continues to give out little treats like The Tree of Wooden Clogs all the way through to my finishing it. Ermanno Olmi deliberately took inspiration from Italian neorealism for this film, which made me a little hesitant at first, but it was barely a half hour into it that I realized I’d found several things to be impressed about.
There basically is no plot, but instead a menagerie of miniature plot threads that are all woven together to create a tapestry detailing life in a farming family in turn-of-the-century Lombardy, Italy. This film opts for the true neorealist route; everything is found exactly as it was, from the locations to the actors to the camera shots. As such, it was a bit of a struggle to get through for me, but it was amusingly enough thanks to the locations and the actors and the camera shots that I was able to keep going. It always amazes me when I see a film from the list that used non-professional actors, which is a better way of saying they picked up actual people living this actual life and gave them lines to memorize; nine times out of ten, the performances they give are so natural and subtle that it is hard to believe (especially after watching films with bad natural acting) that these people aren’t professional or trained in any way. While the acting was superb, it is the actual craftsmanship of making the film and putting it together that was the real star of the show for me. The mise en scene and the production itself were so well accomplished that they were virtually invisible, and I wouldn’t even have noticed if a stray thought toward the production value hadn’t passed through my head. At the risk of somewhat ruining the immersion factor should you watch this for yourself, pay attention occasionally to the editing of the film; how each shot is threaded not only from the previous and into the next, but along with the ones before and after those as well. This film was fantastically edited together, and whenever I was getting particularly bored, I’d focus on the editing to get me back into the mindset the film needed. Oh, and heads up to animal lovers; there’s a particularly graphic scene where the farmers slaughter a pig and gut it for meat, so keep a finger on the fast-forward button if that’s not your thing.
I was really on the fence about whether or not to give this one an extra point, just for being excellently done and put together, but then I reflected on how difficult it was to actually get through the film on the plot alone, and I made the conclusion that the film, as a whole, hadn’t fully earned it. I can see this one being shown in film classes, even if the students there wouldn’t even begin to know how to appreciate a film like this (speaking as a film grad myself); it’s just perfectly made. But, and this was the thing, it wasn’t entertaining enough to hold interest for three hours. This is a great study of a particular way of life in a particular place and time, but don’t expect to be mindlessly munching on popcorn and snacks due to being so wrapped up in the film, because I’d be willing to guarantee that won’t happen with this one. If you have popcorn and snacks, however, you may find yourself munching away on them anyways, just for a lack of anything better to do. If that’s you, focus on the filmmaking at work here, like I did, and there’ll be plenty to hold your interest.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10