Review by Ben Ewing
Posted on 02 February 2010
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
First the glimmering white and black images of Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati light up the screen and warm your heart. Then they abruptly flicker out—like imagined fleeting glances of a love affair you can’t forget but couldn’t hold onto. In seventy-some minutes, I Fidanzati teaches - no, simply lets you learn - about distance, time and the uncontrollable, bittersweet ways in which romances wax and wane.
Olmi introduces the fiancés’ plight in images of the pair sitting still across an empty table. They are in a dance hall suffused with the nervous longings of wallflowers stuck in anticipation. From the first to last, the scenes and sequences of I Fidanzati are as affecting as the quiet looks on the fiancés’ faces at this moment: she, hands in lap, looking away from him with the gentlest irritation; he, staring past her, slightly bemused and frustrated. These are humble people with a modest desire for mutual understanding, but they’ve somehow stumbled past each year and their once-shared sympathy. Giovanni, it shortly becomes clear, is leaving for factory work in Sicily, and his relationship with Liliana has become strained.
Less sentimental than they are emotionally compelling, the great early films of Olmi are also less overtly political and more sociologically insightful than their canonical Neo-Realist forbearers. Though they are outsiders and latecomers that don’t quite fit Italian Neo-Realism’s Platonic ideal - some combination of non- and professional actors, gritty locations, working-class struggle, and pathos-inducing children, all shot with enough spatial continuity to keep André Bazin credulous - Olmi’s homespun but scrupulously non-didactic works feel closer to “realism” with a lower case “r.” Whether about interpersonal affections, the strains put on relationships by displaced labor, or the alienating but darkly humorous toils of the modern, mechanized workplace, Olmi’s films are so lovingly composed that it’s no surprise to learn that he understood all aspects of the film production process—from the highly technical to the ethereal.
To get a sense of Olmi’s craft and to contextualize I Fidanzati within the history of Italian film, it’s helpful not just to look backward to Neo-Realism but also to consider Olmi’s contemporary, Antonioni, who was transitioning from a relatively unheralded filmmaker to an art-house cause célèbre when Olmi was just beginning. In 1962, the year I Fidanzati was released, Antonioni unveiled L’Eclisse, the third feature in what is sometimes called the Antonioni Trilogy, which began with his breakthrough 1960 film L’Avventura. Comparing Antonioni’s works of the time with Olmi’s, one immediately recognizes important thematic and stylistic similarities. Both directors juxtaposed the economic modernization of Italy with the yearnings of young hearts trying to adapt; both employed a slow style of relatively long takes and turned the blank faces of their alienated characters into metaphors for broader social turmoil.
Yet for all these apparent similarities, the films of Antonioni and Olmi are fundamentally different experiences to behold. Whereas Antonioni was a quintessential modernist who deemphasized mimesis in favor of abstraction, Olmi was a big-hearted humanist. If Antonioni verged on using his actors like the “models” of Bresson, or as mere means for advancing a stylistic agenda, Olmi showed as great a love for his characters as Jean Renoir. (It is telling, perhaps, that Antonioni took Monica Vitti as his one time lover and Olmi took Loredana Detto, the female lead from his second film, Il Posto, as his wife.)
I probably would have shared Olmi’s affection for his characters anyway, but I happened to see I Fidanzati under favorable circumstances. The summer I screened it, work had separated Giovanni and me both from our beloveds: he wrote to his fiancé across Italy in Milan, from a factory site in Sicily, and I emailed my girlfriend across the globe in India, from a cubicle at a summer job in Wilmington. Isolated in new, temporary environments, Giovanni and I found solace in written expression—giving it to and receiving it from women who gave us hope and made us less lonely.
Giovanni and I learned in tandem that being simultaneously alone and separated from your special someone is a singular experience. You wait for correspondences—in your mailbox or your Gmail account. You reread, soaking in the phrases and intonations, hearing her speak every word scrawled on paper or pixeled on screen. You talk on the phone, from time to time, and when you do, you’re suddenly shyer than you meant to be when you anticipated the call. Listening to her voice blow whispers in your ear, you’re startled that you don’t quite recognize her. Accustomed to the woman from turns-of-phrase and daydreams, from pasts remembered and futures imagined, you’re suddenly reminded of the distance between you, and this different woman who exists today. Still, you hope. And hopefully, when you put down the phone, you begin writing again.
Watching I Fidanzati, I might have been tempted to say that Olmi understood the situation of his characters - myself included - better than any of us. But if he brilliantly captured the hopes and uncertainties in faces and movements, landscapes and letters, and through his nonlinear narrative of flashbacks (or flashes forward?), he offered no easy explanations or answers, content instead to discover and feel alongside us.
So I never learned how things turned out for Giovanni—never got to see past the final hard rain, the film’s environmental stand-in for the sudden emotional rupture of the fiancés’ pivotal phone call. I have only inklings: my own ending was as abrupt as the film’s, and there wasn’t a rainbow after the clouds had their good cry.