Capitolo 20 is a series on Italian cinema by Vague Visages founder Q.V. Hough. Read the introduction HERE.
Life is beautiful, but idealized love can be grotesque. And at the local dance halls of early 60s Ermanno Olmi films, northern Italian couples reinforce their undying devotion through emotively choreographed dance routines — hands around the partner, eyes surveying the scene. For Domenico, the teenaged subject of Olmi’s 1961 film Il Posto, he can only hope that his crush will walk through the front door, but his blue ribbon turns out to be a bottle of champagne, the stimulant for his first adult experience of dance hall (sur)realism. In contrast, the subjects of Olmi’s follow-up production, I Fidanzati, find themselves far removed from youthful spontaneity. They dance, because they’re supposed to dance.
With I Fidanzati, Olmi touches on brief moments of post-war romanticism found within the northern setting of Il Posto, but introduces an older version of Domenico and Antonietta — the almost-lovers — in the forms of Giovanni (Carlo Cabrini) and Liliana (Anna Canzi). Yet to experience the separation anxiety and persistence of memory that will soon haunt their days and nights, Olmi depicts the couple playing their usual dance hall roles, each aloof to their shared feeling of “symmetry.”
Life in Milan hasn’t made the couple rich, but at least they have each other. And that dance hall? Well, that’s where they first met — a physical location reminiscent of past memories, happy memories. But in the mind of Giovanni, a job offer in Sicily could transform his life into something more — a chance to move ahead — yet his decision to leave for 18 months won’t just affect his engagement and connection to Liliana, it affects all those who rely on him, specifically his elderly father. And before Giovanni makes the journey south, he visualizes what may be in store for him, at least if he doesn’t prove his worth.
Contrasting the linear narrative of Il Posto, Olmi adopts dream imagery as a framing device once Giovanni reaches Sicily. His facial expressions don’t reflect fear or sadness, but rather a perpetual skepticism. He’s not an angry man, but he’s not a perfect man either. And considering Giovanni’s infidelity, as evidenced through impressionistic flashbacks, perhaps he’s merely one of the caged animals referenced by a Sicilian driver. Even so, he’s made a giant step in hopes of improving his life, and just as Olmi highlights Domenico’s isolation through wide hallway shots in Il Posto, he duplicates the technique in I Fidanzati, this time with a more hardened lead.
It’s no secret that southern Italians have been known to enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle than those of the business-minded north. Of course, this doesn’t apply everywhere, certainly in 60s Italy. But as character, Giovanni’s work habits seem to reflect more focus, more awareness, than his new co-workers, and as a new arrival from Milan, he’s immediately reminded that some local employees are, in fact, a bit lazy. In the evening, the walking dead stare at a television, but still, they enjoy their company and routines, even pulling a prank on Giovanni at his hostel, enticing him to join in on the games. Ready to participate in a late-night performance of hallway hide and seek, Giovanni’s quickly reminded of his behavior, only to retort with a childish response of his own. He’s missing something… he’s missing Liliana.
Scene by scene, Olmi utilizes vast physical space to document Giovanni’s growing isolation, but the director also delivers romantic, telling flashback sequences, in which the male lead reflects on that proverbial dancehall of the past (and a serious thinking error that led him astray from Liliana). Incidentally, Olmi has Giovanni frequently on the go, looking for a new bed, literally, and at one point, even looking for religion. And if Giovanni already views himself as a stray dog, the appearance of an actual canine only adds to his crumbling sense of self-worth. Even at a local bar, a genuine human connection evades Giovanni, because there are none to be had, and he temporarily loses himself in a Fellini-esque festival.
Speaking of Fellini, he too released a film in 1963, the iconic Otto e Mezzo (8½). And perhaps it’s no accident that, compared to Olmi’s 1961 film, there’s a notable increase of production design within the 77 minutes of I Fidanzati. At times, Gianni Ferrio’s score feels like Marcello Rubini or Guido Anselmi may walk into the frame, yet within the scope of the film, these elements don’t distract from the narrative, but rather bring the film more feeling, more of the human element, as Giovanni continues to visualize his past life. These scenes don’t show a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but a man that’s genuinely tired, weary and curious about his present condition.
At first, I Fidanzati feels, to me, like a harsh judgment of Giovanni’s poor-decision making. Up north, he just doesn’t care enough to stay put, he’s too self-involved to realize the gravity of his move. But Olmi only gives the viewer a snapshot into his life, and through the memories revealed later on, from different points of view, the couple seems to genuinely cherish one another, whether it’s a moment of domestic affection or a motorcycle ride through the country. But I’m curious about Giovanni’s reputation amongst the locals. Is the infidelity a poorly-kept secret within the community or does he reflect a common attitude of the time? He’s wants love, but he wants money too. And his initial decision proves what he truly needs, at least before a quiet storm approaches.
Primarily focusing on the movements and memories of Giovanni, I Fidanzati ultimately reveals a man willing to adapt. And that shows promise for the character, despite some of the more ominous visuals of the final act. Rather than drinking, he’s shown lying awake in bed. And rather than completely losing himself in despair (out of mind, out of sight), he seeks out friendship and connections, but there’s always some type of roadblock. Perhaps he wants to feel accepted, even if he knows deep down that he won’t be staying put. But every so often, Giovanni finds himself stuck in a difficult moment. Pain. Surrealism. Confusion. But, like a stray dog, loneliness isn’t something to dwell on, it’s just something to get used to.
As for Liliana, her romance with Giovanni feels a bit like Natalie Wood falling for James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. Maybe it’s the motorcycle visuals, or maybe it’s the Sicilian police sirens that conjure up imagery of Jim Stark’s jailhouse wailing, but the inherent sadness is there, and for both characters. With all due respect to the narrative innovations of Ray’s film, this isn’t Hollywood. There’s no Sal Mineo to remind of universal mysteries, but a prevailing storm representing a metaphorical third wheel. And when it finally arrives, Giovanni seems to recognize the implications. He and Liliana are no longer teenagers, and their idealistic love can only last so long unless they dance to a different tune and accept their flaws as human beings.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the founder/editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.