Ermanno Olmi’s seldom-cited debut feature, the 1958 Time Stood Still, is a wonderful film, but it was the one-two punch of his second and third films that put him on the international movie scene map. Il Posto and I Fidanzati are often bracketed together, and although they are substantially different, it makes a kind of sense to regard them as bookend works.
Think of them as two estuaries growing out of the same river. Il Posto flows north to Milan, and I Fidanzati south and across the channel to Sicily. The first deals with a young man’s entry into the deadening, overly regimented, oppressive world of the white-collar work force, with the romantic prospect of a charming fellow worker named Antonietta offering a measure of hope. I Fidanzati, made two years later, is about a skilled blue-collar worker during a long and lonesome company displacement down south. Giovanni is at least ten years older than Il Posto’s Domenico, and he is leaving his relationship with Liliana, his fiancée of many years, in a state of flux and uncertainty. Domenico is continually pondering the future, while Giovanni is constantly drawn back to memories of his relationship with Liliana, the sweet ones and the sad ones as well. Both films are shot—by the director himself—in a beautiful, almost lustrous black and white, but where Il Posto is more of an interior, nighttime film (the daylight effectively nullified by the windowless offices at company headquarters), I Fidanzati is largely an open air, daytime experience, in which Giovanni spends long stretches wandering through the Sicilian landscape. Which brings up a fascinating contrast: Domenico is always looking around him, quietly absorbing every detail, while Giovanni is continually caught in a reverie, his attention swept away from his surroundings as the screen of reality dissolves into the question mark of his romance with Liliana. Which is why Il Posto, with one moving exception, proceeds in a straight line, while I Fidanzati keeps slipping into the past tense.
Perhaps the principal reason these two films are always thought of together is much simpler. They both feature extended dancehall scenes, with different outcomes yet remarkably similar in tone and build-up. The company New Year’s Eve dance in Il Posto is that film’s anti-climactic climax, while I Fidanzati opens at the dance hall where Giovanni and Liliana have a melancholy date just before he is about to leave for Sicily, and where we later learn they had first met, years before. In both films, the dancehall is empty at the start, and the emptiness is at once comical and sad. Every disconnected detail, like the throwing of sand on the floor at the beginning of I Fidanzati as the couples sit in chairs waiting for the music to begin, carrying a surreal overtone, not to mention a deep poignance.
Giovanni’s reserve and rough-hewn elegance. Liliana’s wounded dignity and plain dark beauty. These are the film’s visual and emotional constants, and they function like two different instruments sharing one theme in a piece of modal jazz. I Fidanzati is made in Olmi’s time-slipping register, and it is by far his most beautiful foray into modernist territory, simply because it feels so homegrown. While many directors were trying their hands at fractured temporal structures in the same way that one might try on a new coat, Olmi employs it to convey something very precise—longing. The past and the present, desire and work, offset each other with great beauty in I Fidanzati. We are able to take in the details of Giovanni’s exile from his northern homeland—the Sicilian heat, a lonely TV room at the company hotel, flimsily constructed bedrooms with tiny bathrooms—in their full measure because Giovanni is reacting to them with an entirely lifelike mixture of curiosity and abstraction, his attention continually drawn away to Liliana. By the same token, the force of Giovanni’s emotional episodes is reinforced by the concreteness of these strange new surroundings.
Of course, it would all be for naught without the eternal freshness of the acting. “I don’t use a fig to make a pear,” Olmi has told author Ellen Oumano. “These people…bring to the film a weight, really a constitution of truth that, provoked by the situations in which the characters find themselves, creates palpitations, those vibrations so right, so real, and therefore not repeatable. At the twentieth take, the actor still cries. The real actor, the character taken from life, won’t do more than four repetitions. It’s like capturing a light: either you get it at that moment or you don’t get it at all.” Carlo Cabrini as Giovanni and Anna Canzi as Liliana give off a beautiful light. As in the greatest of Olmi’s films, they light the way for the director and for his audience as well. Cabrini carries himself with a stiffness no actor would ever be able to pull off, but that we might all recognize from life, the stiffness of polite reserve. The same could be said of Canzi’s real-life worry and lack of composure, one step away from emotional disshevelment.
Since so much of I Fidanzati is devoted to longing and acclimation to a new and unfriendly place, it’s natural that Giovanni’s attention should be riveted by images of wonder: the unexpected lyricism of showers of sparks cascading from his worksite, and the unearthly beauty of mounds of salt raked up by workers on the flats. These moments, which would doubtlessly prompt the same kind of rapt attention that both Giovanni and Olmi’s camera give them here were we to encounter them in real life, prepare us for the mysterious power of the ending. Giovanni has finally had a series of encouraging letters from Liliana (it’s never clear exactly how long he has been in Sicily), and he calls Liliana on a Sunday afternoon, just as a storm is about to break. Her response is one of alarm: what’s wrong? As Giovanni walks outside only to run for shelter once the rain starts coming in droves, Olmi shows us, with the greatest delicacy, just how fragile our resolve can be in the face of the natural world. In the final images of this haunting and ineffably gentle film, affirmation and doubt seem to come pouring down from the sky, in equal measures.