At three hours long, I knew that this Italian film was going to take some commitment, so I had delayed watching it for a few weeks. But last night, I settled in to give it my full attention. I'm glad that I did.
Filmed in 1978, and titled L'Albero degli zoccoli in its native Italian, it has been described by some as filmmaker Ermanno Olmi's masterpiece, and won the Grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It covers a year in the lives of three peasant families at the very end of the 19th century. They all work on the estate of their landlord, who takes two-thirds of their produce and revenue, and who turns vicious at the end in an unexpected move that's a significant overreaction.
The film slightly idealizes the peasant families. In cities like Milan, there are revolutions going on. Rich people have phonograph machines and play fine music. But the farm families live on polenta and prayer.
The church and the Catholic faith is absolutely central to their lives. The families are kind and generous to a disabled neighbor, but to my mind, act very cruelly when one of their members runs into trouble with their unjust landlord.
The film is somewhat difficult to watch, not because of its rather slow pace, but because of the grinding poverty of the families and their struggles throughout. Their lives are so very difficult that they don't even try to get ahead; the most they seem able to work for is to endure, to survive, and find a bit of joy in the daily grind.
There is some romance, some laughter, beautiful children but there is an overall sense of despair.
A bit of trivia: according to the IMDb site, this is one of actor Al Pacino's favourite movies of all time. As well, all of the actors were apparently actual farmers and residents of the Bergamo province in Italy where the film was shot. They reportedly had no acting experience at all. If true, the technique is quite effective as the characters are completely realistic and believable.