You notice right away that Olmi doesn’t take a Disneyesque approach to things. There are scenes of communal bliss, certainly, like the farmers singing together while they shuck corn, but there doesn’t appear to be much joy in daily life for these people. They work hard and long, and there are no frivolities. They’re simple uneducated people to whom there are three pillars of life: Work, family, and God.
I said “uneducated” just now. Early on, we eavesdrop on a meeting between one of the farmers and the local priest, in which the priest attempts to tell the farmer that his gifted young son needs to go to school, instead of becoming just another farmer. The father is hesitant, and his reasons are mixed. He is concerned about the long daily walk his son will have to make, but he is also uncomfortable that the boy will drift away from his family and his roots. The concepts of family and community are that strong in this place. Eventually, the father agrees.
ToWC is unusual in that everyone you see onscreen is a non-actor. The entire cast was taken from local peoples of the Bergamo district of Italy (Olmi grew up in the area). This harks back to the work of the great Italian neorealist filmmakers of the 40’s, and in particular Vittorio De Sica, whose masterpiece The Bicycle Thief is recalled in this film. Olmi was striving for the look and feel of a documentary here, and the non-actors help him achieve that. Take the memorable scene where the farmers slaughter a pig. There are no tricks here – a real pig is being killed onscreen – but instead of reacting with revulsion, I found a certain nobility in these people quietly going about this grisly, yet necessary task.
It’s tough to keep a family together here. One of the women is a widow with six kids, and it’s a constant struggle for her to keep things going. Her oldest son starts working at 15, just so he can help out, and there’s a fascinating scene where she meets with the priest about her predicament. The priest tells her that the local orphanage would be able to take her two youngest if she wishes. We would expect any movie mother to say “No! I’ll never give up my kids!”, but in this case, the woman is pragmatic. Certainly the idea scares her, but she also needs to think about the family as a whole, and whether she can provide for six of them. When she tells the priest that she needs to check with the oldest son, she’s absolutely serious. The son insists the family stay together, but his solution is heartbreaking in its own way. He will take an extra job, and the next oldest – all of 12 - will start working.
There are three generations in the farm community, and the movie makes a point of illustrating the interaction amongst them. The widows’ elderly father lives with them, and the film follows a touching little story thread where he and his granddaughter plan to grow tomatoes that will be ready before anyone elses in the spring. There is no false sentimentality in these bits, just the sense of a wise older man passing his knowledge to a child. That feeling of the passing of a way of life from generation to generation is one of the true joys in watching this film.
The widow, who already has enough to worry about, faces a crisis when the family cow falls ill. The veterinarian recommends slaughtering the animal, but she refuses to give up. She draws water from the river, while praying for God to provide his blessing. The animal recovers after drinking the “holy” water, and this sequence invites some discussion. Is Olmi suggesting that God has intervened and saved the cow? Isn’t this at odds with the films ultra-realistic styling? I personally think this sequence is more about the woman than the cow. I don’t completely discount the possibility of a miracle, but the main thing is that the woman’s faith never wavers.
I’ve made this world sound like a closed society, and that’s what it is. There’s not really a sniff of the outside world until well into the film when we follow a young couple on their honeymoon. There was a lot of political turbulence in Italy at that time as the country crept towards socialism, and when the couple arrives in the city, there are violent clashes in the streets. The contrast between the innocent young couple (They spend their wedding night in a convent!) and the bustling city is very stark indeed.
A capsule review of this film would mention the “crime” that the movie takes its title from, how the father of the young boy cuts down a tree to make a new pair of clogs that the son can wear to school, and is thrown off the farm by the landowner. That is certainly true, but this event is only part of a larger tapestry, and it is only significant to us because we have lived with these peasants for two hours. The act of the theft is freighted with deeper meanings, like the fact that after being opposed to the son going to school, the farmer is willing to commit a crime to ensure that he can continue. Also, what kind of man is willing to cast a family out of their home because of a hunk of wood? When the farmer and his family (Which includes a newborn baby) have to pack up and leave, the rest of the peasants watch from inside their homes. Olmi is not suggesting that the others are fair-weather friends, but is rather pointing up the hard reality that for the others, life has to go on. We’ve seen some of the others load up a wagon with rocks in order to cheat on the price for their crops, thuso they all know that that could just as easily be them.
Strangely enough, I thought of Bruce Springsteen while watching this film. In his song Reason to Believe, he ruminates on those to whom faith is as much an imperative as oxygen or water.
It struck me kinda funny. Seems kinda funny, sir, to me. How at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.
That describes these people, boiled right down to their essence. They live in a harsh world, and most know that they can’t hope to achieve much beyond it, but they keep on going.