Two days ago I watched The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli), Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 film which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival. The film depicts a year in the lives of four families occupying a farmstead in Lombardy at the end of the 19th century. Olmi, who died this past May, used ordinary people from the Bergamo area instead of professional actors. The amateurs acted anything but amateurishly, giving the film an aura of verisimilitude.
The families (peasants, in fact) live in a state of semi-feudalism. As an English title board tells us: “Almost everything, even 2/3rds of the harvest, belongs to the landlord.” The Italian board specifies what some of the “everything” is: la casa (the house); le stalle (the stables); la terra (the land); gli alberi (the trees); and some of the bestiame (livestock) and attrezzi (tools).
The film has the feel of a documentary, depicting the community plowing, planting, harvesting, and transporting large bags of produce to be weighed. The film is not plot driven; but the small stories of the folk are evident throughout. The first story (and the one from which the film gets its title) is that of Minec, the five-year-old son of Batistì, who has been identified by the local priest as a very bright boy and who, therefore, in the priest’s eyes, should be sent to school. Batistì himself, as he tells the priest, has never seen the inside of a school, and complains to his wife, “A peasant’s son going to school, what would people say?” Moreover, his wife is pregnant with their third child, and if Minec goes to school, the family will lose a helping hand around the house.
Nevertheless, the boy does go off to school, walking 6 kilometers each way to the village in his wooden clogs.
Another resident of the farmstead is a widow with too many mouths to feed. Her only income comes from washing other people’s laundry and the little money her fifteen-year-old son earns from his new job at the mill. To alleviate the burden of her poverty, the priest tells her that the nuns would be willing to take the two youngest children into care. But the son absolutely vetoes the proposal; the family will stick together.
The life these Bergamese peasants have is the life their ancestors had. They bear their lot and carry on. And no matter how little they have, they will hand a bowl of polenta to a beggar who shows up at their door.
But except for a handout or an occasional boost from the Church, these people have no social safety net. And no idea about acting together for social change. When a radical speaker proclaims his message from a soapbox at the village fair, he is mostly ignored. And as we see when the film for a while leaves the Bergamo area to follow the honeymoon visit of a newly-wed couple to Milan, the soldiers of the state are busily rounding up government opponents, who are led off to prison in shackles.
Another time when the film moves away from the peasants we find the padrone (the landlord), on the other hand, living a comfortable life. We are able to view it—deliberately distanced from it—through a window. A young man (the padrone’s son?) plays Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” on the piano while his well-dressed audience dozes or exhibits boredom.
The denouement of the film (which I won’t reveal) comes about through the padrone’s exercise of his property rights. He will not be caught dozing when they are violated.
Yesterday, by contrast, I read an article about the egregious Koch brothers, billionaires with no social conscience. Written by Jane Mayer, a long-time tracker of the duo, the article* relates how elder bro, Charles, has eased his sib, David, out of the Koch family business.
The Koch brothers, through various political action committees, have spent, are spending, and unfortunately for well-being of the Republic, will in future spend even more millions of dollars in an attempt to achieve their goal—what William Buckley, Jr.** once labeled “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.” The money has come from ownership of companies in just about every environmentally-destructive and polluting industry: "oil refineries and pipelines, . . . lumber, paper, chemicals, coal, fertilizer.”
Is it any wonder that they wish to destroy the EPA?
In 1980, David ran for Vice-President on the Libertarian Party ticket. In addition to calling for the abolishment of the EPA, the party’s platform called for getting rid of "all federal income taxes and virtually every federal agency, including the I.R.S., the F.B.I., the C.I.A., the F.E.C., . . . the F.D.A., and the S.E.C. The party also opposed Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, public education, and minimum-wage and child-labor laws."
Welcome to 19th century Bergamo!
** I can’t believe I’m quoting Buckley approvingly!