Movie Synopsis

The Clog Tree: Al Pacino’s favorite film

The Clog Tree: The forgotten film that Al Pacino and Mike Leigh call one of the greatest of all time

(Image credit: Criterion Collection)


Federico Fellini laid out his very Italian philosophy when he said: “Life is a combination of magic and pasta”. Delve a little further into Italian cinema and you’ll see Cinema Paradiso’s quote: “Life isn’t like in the movies. Life is much harder.” Somewhere between these two quotes you will find Italy’s ability to ease life’s hardships through the magic of art. Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece from 1978 was created here, The tree of clogs, sits. And it’s a mark of its power that it won the hearts of Mike Leigh and Al Pacino – two very different men.

The film contains the following synopsis: “A picturesque and sensual immersion into late 19th-century Italian peasant life, directed by Ermanno Olmi The tree of clogs lovingly focuses on four families working for a landowner on a remote estate in the province of Bergamo – a towering, heartfelt work of humanistic filmmaking.”

Strip that of the poetry and you’re left with something like this: “A portrayal of poor people in a feudal peasant community in 19th-century Italy.” This may sound boring to some, but the poetry is the whole point – it takes this simple one presence and adds untold meaning.

That’s why Leigh agitates against the naysayers. “It’s frightening that there are people who find it boring,” he said telegraph, “because it strikes me as such an incredibly human film, such a fundamental film in terms of what we’re looking at, the full range of human experience. But I suppose some people just want a different kind of film and want to be tickled.”

This is most definitely not the kind of film that The tree of clogs falls in. In fact, it defies many Hollywood movie tropes; One is to avoid using trained actors and instead work with the working descendants of the people depicted. Then, Olmi takes those filmmaking austerities even further by being essentially a one-man crew writing, directing, editing and more.

“To me it’s extraordinary in a lot of ways,” Leigh assures, wholeheartedly turning amateurishness into fine art is just one of them. “Olmi makes people want to be totally three-dimensional, sensual and real, and it’s just phenomenal,” he says of the director’s humble craft.

“Then there’s the scale of it,” he continues. “The tree of clogs is a film about people and place, environment, seasons, the cycle of things; it’s about power, class, religion and belief; love, superstition and travel; Life and death. […] it’s just so lifelike,” but that’s the Italian way. It’s also true to the art, which is why a more ballistic man like Al Pacino also calls it a personal favorite.

After all, as much as it is reduced to the essentials, it still has the magic of the film in itself. Leigh concludes, “That’s what’s fantastic about it: it’s one of those films that goes beyond filmmaking without ever veering into some kind of pseudo-documentary.” And therein lies the core of its shine, the act, this humble life as Capturing film is a hallmark of poetry, elevating it from rural poor going about their business to an expressionist eulogy of life in all its warts ‘n all’ beauty.


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