Full Bloom: Tomatoes in Ermanno Olmi’s "The Tree of Wooden Clogs”

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Tomatoes grown secretly in Lombardy become a small miracle in the impoverished countryside.

Written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš.

Full Bloom is a series that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom. 

GROWING UNDER THE BED 

“…the tomato, / star of earth, / recurrent / and fertile / star, / displays / its convolutions, / its canals, / its remarkable amplitude / and abundance, / no pit, / no husk, / no leaves or thorns, / the tomato offers / its gift / or fiery color / and cool completeness.“

—Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Tomatoes”

Flies approach. They always do. I suppose they are always hiding somewhere close to us, waiting for little cracks and smells to appear. Now they are everywhere, buzzing around the piles of tomatoes we’ve gathered from our garden. We laid them out across the table and the kitchen shelf. The berries of this vine plant originating in South and Central America came in all kinds of sizes and colors this year. Deep and light red, green, green with yellow stripes, yellow like the sun, orange, pink, and even golden, which gave them their Italian name pomodoro. What a beautiful round, oval or egg-shaped, long or slender, heart or pear-shaped delight! But the rain and cold stressed them throughout the summer and some have split open. Others are covered with a white fluid, traces of slugs, and disease. The appearance of the flies reminds me that everything warns of death. You can chase them away with your hands or use a glass of vinegar in which they’ll drown. My grandmother told me to do that. Then, if you feel safe, you pick up a tomato and you might discover life again.

Ermanno Olmi is a filmmaker to whom I turn if I need advice. More than anything else, his best films teach me humility and candor. In many ways, his work searches for lost connections between the natural world and humanity as well as the tensions between a longing for freedom and the demands of society and labor. His most celebrated film and 1978 Palme d’Or winner, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, is set in late nineteenth-century Lombardy, a large region in northern Italy. It deals with the life, poverty, and dignity of peasants working in the mezzadria system, the Italian form of sharecropping in which the farmers cultivate a piece of land for a proprietor and can only keep a percentage of what they produce. There is not much room for escape in Olmi’s sublime observations of work and suffering. Only sometimes do little joys occur, for example the changing of seasons or the jokes told at dinner tables.

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