If absence makes the heart grow fonder, what does presence do?
The power of love
It is the driving energy in the Universe, much more so than anger or hate, which are irreparably linked into it. It is the emotion we yearn for from the moment we are born to the second before we die. We seem incomplete without it, wondering why we are so flawed when we don't have it and overly blessed when we do. Love may conquer all, may be what the world needs now (or frankly, it may be all you need), and it will probably tear us apart, again. But like the song also says, it's the only thing that there's just too little of. And why is that? Why is love so fleeting and fragile? Young marrieds seem to think it's all powerful, that it will support them through unsure times and terrible crises. The newly infatuated believe so strongly in its force that they fear they shall never feel anything like it again as long as they live. And yet we label love as a mystery, an unsure emotion fraught with numerous ancillary consequences. Love can be so tough it leads to hate, to loathing, to great grief and infinite sadness. Yet we champion its pursuit, often doing outrageous and uncharacteristic things to obtain it. In Annie Hall, a dejected Alvy Singer fears one of the prime myths of love: it fades. Or at least, it grows stale and dormant like a lump of charcoaled wood in the dying embers of a once raging fire. Or maybe it doesn't pass. Maybe it just grows comfortable, surrounded on all sides by a cage of familiarity. In Ermanno Olmi's simple, subtle film I Fidanzati, we witness the effect that distance and disinterest has on two people, engaged to be married, who believe they are "in love," but may not actually be in love with each other. Is the old saying true? Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or does it merely over-romanticize its already overstated influence?
Facts of the Case
Giovanni and Luciana are a young couple who have been engaged for a very long time. Giovanni works for a petrochemical plant in Milan, in the northern part of Italy. Recently, he has been transferred to the company's new facility in Sicily, several hundred miles to the south. While it means a promotion and better pay, the move has placed a serious strain on his relationship with Luciana. Frankly, it was somewhat tense to begin with. There is very little trust and even less communication between the committed pair. And when Giovanni tries to discuss the move with Luciana, she seems to shut down, anticipating the worst possible outcome to the entire relocation. Reluctantly, Giovanni moves to Sicily.
There he is overwhelmed by the lack of activity and the rural climate. The loneliness and the isolation begin to take its toll. He spends his days (and occasional nights) in endless toil for the company while he wastes his free time wandering the near desolate Sicilian countryside. Fellow workers who have lived in the location for longer than Giovanni reinforce the foreign, almost alien aura of the area and its people. Giovanni writes to Luciana, but she is slow to answer. When she does, it begins a chain of correspondence that seems to re-ignite their once waning passion. The stress between the two subsides. They both feel the separation has been good for their relationship. But a casual phone call one Sunday afternoon may indicate otherwise.
He is a self-taught filmmaker. Before he made a single fictional work he helmed dozens of factual cinematic explorations in the field of documentaries. When approaching story, he envisioned movies as an extension of real life. His canvas and paints would be the mundane everyday world around us. Inspired by and following in the footsteps of such important Italian luminaries as De Sica and Rossellini, he utilized the neo-realist approach, even though to refer to his movies in such a fashion would be to remove essential truths from them. Ermanno Olmi, the director of Il Posto and E Venne Un Uomo, believed in the concept that cinema should mirror life: a film should reflect existence back to us, allowing us to study it more carefully and profoundly. This school of filmmaking, one that allows a factual camera style to capture a fictional slice of living, was seen as revolutionary when it first hit the world's movie screens. And it's no wonder. A planet force-fed on the Hollywood glamour ideal of life as a perfectly costumed, immaculately made up, and flawlessly executed set of formulaic problems easily supplanted by the end of the film just was not used to seeing the plain, the normal, or the ugly living their unadorned existences as onscreen entertainment. But films like The Bicycle Thief and I Fidanzati showed that there was as much power, passion, and purpose in small stories of simple people as their was in the epic struggles of the hyper-real. Olmi and his fellow directors understood that genuineness comes in all segments/classes of society.
The statement made in the Charge of this review is the main thematic principle guiding I Fidanzati. In this exquisite, uncomplicated mediation on togetherness versus division, we experience a story of how love lingers, fades, and is reborn within the dynamic of two people, two places, and all their characteristics. Indeed, beyond the political ideology surrounding the industrialization of the rural landscape and the obvious jabs at the craziness within corporate structures (explored in more detail in Olmi's previous film, Il Posto) is a tale of emotions on a tight wire, with commitment, caring, and comfort hanging in the balance. Olmi goes so far as to title his film "the Fiancés," so we understand that we are dealing with that fragile time before marriage, where an arrangement is in place, but in which the final lockstep into full-blown legal obligation has yet to occur. In modern society, we love to joke about grooms with "cold feet" and brides with "buyer's remorse." But I Fidanzati places us in a situation far more precarious than these last minute mental anxieties. Here, our couple is committed but potentially broken. Separation threatens to provide the catalyst to a final resolution of the relationship, for good or bad. I Fidanzati challenges the very idea of togetherness. By literally moving its main characters apart from each other and focusing on them alone, we are allowed to witness the obvious distance and inner disdain they sometimes have for one another
Harlan Ellison once wrote that he had no problem being alone. It was being lonely that he disliked. Giovanni is very much a man alone, both in his life with Luciana and his move to Sicily. As in Ellison's statement, when he is with his fiancée, he is alone. He is misunderstood and has even strayed a time or two. The excitement and desire he once felt has been masked by the foul odor of familiarity, of knowing his partner too well. So he has turned inward, become a solitary man amongst his family and friends. Once in Sicily, though, he understands just what true loneliness is. It's isolation and disconnection, not only from loved ones but also from personal comfort and your surroundings. It's not knowing where you are. It's not knowing where you will live. It's having no roots in an area that is constantly changing its traditions and patterns. Looking for a familiar dancehall, he hears music and runs into a building, only to be met with an empty coffee shop and a loudly playing radio. Hoping to find a decent apartment, he must instead accept a room within a strange, cramped boarding house as price gouging by the locals has made finding a nice place impossible. And all the while the promised "new" job and "promotion" turns out to be more of the same thing, over and over again. Being important can placate a man forlorn. But when you are just one of several transient employees showering sparks down from the factory rafters, the barren countryside and hovel like living conditions begin to oppress and unhinge you.
Not that Luciana has it any easier from her position. For her, the separation is the worst possible situation for a woman who feels the grip on her man slipping. Distance means possibilities, enticements, and freedoms. Without her watchful eye on him, the already wandering Giovanni could disconnect himself from her completely. And even if the chance of that happening appears remote, there are all the things she may never learn or know, through the grapevine or otherwise. In Luciana, we have love without its supposed reservoir, without a place to reside and hide in. Out in the open and worn coat sleeve style, the emotion becomes far more delicate and destructible. That is why she is hesitant to answer Giovanni's letters at first. She does not want to experience what she sees as the inevitable "Dear Jane" she is sure is just around the corner. It is also why, once she discovers how Giovanni is feeling (thanks either to his singular, lonely status or his true feelings, or both), she is so ready to reach out, across the distance, and smother her lover with tributes and promises. While this emotional exchange may be totally based in honest caring for one another, I Fidanzati provides an undercurrent of desperation for both sides. Each is trying to find either a way out of the pain and malaise that surrounds their engagement, a means of reconnecting and strengthening their union or merely a way of minimizing the pain. It may be distance that makes their feelings fortify, but it may too be the haunting, horrible feeling of really being unaccompanied for the first time in their adult lives.
Connection is the other intriguing issue that Olmi focuses on in I Fidanzati: not just unions of physicality, of touching and the embrace, but the mental and symbolic associations we make in everyday life. Almost like junkies, our characters are addicted to the feeling and familiarity of love. They seem to suffer a kind of subconscious withdrawal once it is removed. Giovanni, a confident, semi-suave cocksure player turns into a reclusive, nostalgic near child in Sicily, giddy at the sight of another adolescent smoking and spending longs afternoons playing in the surf. And like any child, after a while, he grows homesick and needy. He tries to find escape in the adult pleasure of the past (drinking, carousing) but learns that the poison of love has changed his inner workings forever. Without it, he will be lost. Same with Luciana. For her, the time without emotional support has been longer, and more agonizing. Some of it she experienced even before Giovanni. The symbols of connection constantly surround them: the dancehall, where proper ladies and gentleman exchange corporal and emotional love with complete parental and social acceptance; the beach, where family and friends gather to relax; the job, where life is spent in direct agreement/conflict with others for purely financial reasons; correspondence, where individuals share their innermost thoughts through the written word; the telephone, where voices as well as passions can be broadcast. And yet even with all these tokens and repositories of bonding, they seem only able to truly mesh in the world of words. In all others, they are awkward and cold.
From this description, it seems that I Fidanzati should be a movie loaded with brilliant performances and tour de force camera work. But oddly, this is not a movie about acting or direction. Olmi's camera has a habit of staying on the outskirts of situations, watching them the way a documentarian would, without setup or care for compositional makeup. And in his actors, whom are usually non-professionals, he demands and captures attitude and temperament only. There is no method here, just storytelling methodology. You remember his characters more for what they represent and tell you about the circumstances surrounding them than their individualism. Giovanni is not so much a character as he is a depiction, an impression of basic, normal man; a guy filled with sexual drive, misplaced machismo and fear of commitment. Luciana is all female fickleness and fright, walking the tenuous social line of physical promise with actual fulfillment. She is all women, wanting to hold on to her man but not willing to compromise her honor to do so (especially in the very moralistic, very Catholic society of Italy where a dance is considered the only satisfactory public display of affection). Carlo Cabrini and Anna Canzi are very good in this film because they are very real, and at the heart of any neo-realistic examination of life, that is the best that they and Olmi can hope for. Olmi is not obsessed with actors projecting their inner demons onto the screen to illuminate his themes. The issues here are universal. Anyone (and everyone) could play at and project them.
I Fidanzati is therefore the story of every romance, of how everyone—no matter who they are, their social status, or their experience (or lack thereof)—understands love. Those who are truly bound in destiny will feel separation anxiety and a wealth of good feelings even during the seemingly endless moments apart. Those with less than a secure relationship may also appreciate their partner anew, glossing over the bad to merely remember the good. For some, the partnership was a sham to begin with, and distance cements the finality of the need to split up. In the case of Giovanni and Luciana, storm clouds seem to be brewing up ahead. The time in Sicily has made Giovanni aware of his truly heartfelt emotion for Luciana and he wants to reconnect with that. And through letters and postcards, the expressions of love are tender and touching. But at the end of the film, when it seems like the lovers have remembered the importance of each other in their life and are committed anew, a simple phone call betrays an inherent obstacle, a thunderstorm to deluge the fires of re-ignited love. Giovanni's face betrays the flaw. In the ethereal world of verse and prose, where poetic and complex infatuations can be precisely and accurately thought out, the relationship between these I Fidanzati is perfect: not without bumps, but exemplary in its purity and power. But the minute a human connection is made, when voices must conduct what the pen has perpetuated all this time, nothing much happens. Luciana appears near incoherent (based on Giovanni's side of the conversation) and her debonair, eloquent lover a frazzled and henpecked rube. For this is the final secret divulged in I Fidanzati, a clandestine concept that many never discover until it is too late. Love does indeed fade (like Mr. Singer's dead shark). But it also lingers and scars, leaving one changed forever. Someone once said "love hurts." Indeed it does.
Criterion presents I Fidanzati in one of those magnificent monochrome remasters that make people who are fans of the old-fashioned black and white movie weep for joy. The image here is stunning in its clarity, detail, and dynamics. The darks are deep and rich while the bright scenes (especially the white rice mounds against the gray horizon) are sparkling in their contrasts. Though Olmi does not do much with his composition or framing, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation does preserve the director's vision, especially in scenes shot from far distances, images of cars traveling out into the unknown and distant factories blurring the landscape. The Dolby Digital Mono is also wonderful. There is not a great deal of dialogue in this film, but what is present is easy to hear. But unless you speak Italian, you will gladly rely on the wonderfully clear English subtitles. For bonus material, Criterion exhumes the film's original trailer that sells I Fidanzati as a typical moody Italian romance, filled with that hefty arthouse passion that so many Mediterranean movies were mislabeled as having years ago. There is then a very interesting essay, written by critic Kent Jones, which tries to put Olmi's work into perspective. But the best job of explaining his filmmaking style is done by the director himself, in a brief 14-minute interview that makes up the final extra content added to the disc. In between rather disjointed statements by another critic (and occasional collaborator) Tullio Kezich, Olmi discusses his cinematic philosophy, his influences, and the underlying themes in I Fidanzati. Although it is far too short, it does provide excellent insight into a director and his approach to making movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At only 77 minutes, I Fidanzati feels truncated, as if it is the first act in a much longer, more diverse three-act exploration of relationships. That we could follow these characters for another couple of hours is a testament to Olmi's brilliant storytelling style, reminiscent of silent films. But the brief running time heightens the sole complaint with this release. If you add the slight (if significant contextually) bonus material here, we have a mere 90 minutes of content on a DVD that will retail for $29.99 and up. Now, price should never be a consideration for anyone wishing to purchase a film, especially one as excellent as this one, but for some people, the notion of getting what they pay for or some manner of bargain is all that matters. Two-disc DVD sets that skimp on the extras for more bitrate and sound/picture quality produce ire from angry consumers while single digital discs crammed to the compression error gills with bonus content draw raves and residuals. Olmi is not as well known as his fellow Italian neo-realists. More information on him, in the guise of a filmography or documentary overview, would have been nice. And as he is alive, a commentary would not be out of the question (unless he has no English speaking skill whatsoever). Alas, what we get here is a wonderful film with a near flawless presentation from the sound and vision department that will leave many people feeling shortchanged, merely because other discs have set the bonus content bar so high for the DVD industry, Criterion included.
Love couldn't save John Lennon. It didn't keep Marvin Gaye from dying at the end of his father's gun. Love never stops a mother or father from abusing their child. As many times as it's invoked or proclaimed, people still go hungry, stay homeless, and end up lost and alone. One of the real truisms portrayed in Ermanno Olmi's film I Fidanzati is that love is a human emotion, defined by humans, manipulated by humans, craved by humans, and dismissed by them. Sure, one can think of it in ghostly, otherworldly terms. They can envision Cupid with his poisoned arrows shooting love into their heart with a deadly, unrequited accuracy. They can believe in bolts out of the blue and sudden whirlwinds sweeping them up and off their feet. They can accept as true that love is all about finding the right cosmic mate and making the proper ethereal karmic hookup. But the truth is much more down to Earth and realistic. Love is a means of giving emotional weight and depth to physical want and comfort. It's a means of defining feelings and sharing intimacies in mutually and socially acceptable terminology. It may seem like some spiritual awakening, but it's founded in human connections and togetherness. Presence in turn does make love fade since it's no longer required to stay constant, to be ever available. And absence does increase its intensity, since mixed with confusion and loneliness, its power and clarity is remarkable. For the fiancés in I Fidanzati, love is the reason they are bound jointly, and it is the reason why they will probably never be happy. Love may mean never having to say you're sorry, but it also guarantees that you'll have things to apologize for. Such is the way of life. Such is the way of love.
I Fidanzati is acquitted on all charges and is free to go. The court recommends that movie lovers investigate other works of Italian neo-realism and especially, the other available Criterion disc of Ermanno Olmi's work, Il Posto. Court dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Mysteries of Life: Video Interview with Director Ermanno Olmi and Film Critic/Historian Tullio Kezich
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