THE FIANCÉS (Ermanno Olmi, 1962)

One of the most remarkable films ever made about the Italian working class, Ermanno Olmi’s The Fiancés (I fidanzati) is also a love story of sorts. More particularly, it’s about the strain placed on an engaged couple by their separation once the man, Giovanni, relocates from Milan, where he works as a welder in a petrochemical factory, to his new job, at the company’s new plant, in Sicily. Giovanni is taking his and Liliana’s future with him, as it were, for the better pay and greater opportunities for career advancement that, theoretically at least, will also advance the date of their marriage and help strengthen their financial foundation. Things do not work out that way, however; there’s no coming together of north and south. In reality, and with great feeling and brilliant black-and-white imagery, Olmi clarifies the extent to which work dictates the course of working-class lives. Including love, it seems. The Fiancés is a devastating film.

The opening movement consists of two parts. The setting is industrial Milan in the ravishing dark of night: the time for those who are hard at work during the day to squeeze in some social life. Specifically, a club-dance hall is being readied for the evening’s working-class patrons. People file in; in the dark, patrons are already sitting, waiting; the floor is sprinkled with (I’m guessing) rosin; the musicians take their places and ready their instruments. Usually in a film such preparations are taken for granted; they aren’t shown. But as this is a film specifically about workers, Olmi is reminding us that these people also are laborers, part of the same working-class community. This “silent” overture—there is no dialogue—is as engrossing as it is affectionate, and it establishes the film’s participation in the Italian neorealist tradition bringing documentary realism to fiction. Its last two features find the lights at last coming on and the floor coming to life with couples.

The second part of the opening is more complex. Giovanni and Liliana are one of the couples in the hall. They are seated at a small table, but they aren’t facing one another; there’s tension between them. “Well?” Giovanni asks, inviting Liliana to dance in an anything-but-romantic or even cordial way. Liliana, upset, will not dance with Giovanni, who eventually leaves her to ask someone else across the hall. Before the two do end up dancing together, around and around and around almost mechanically, Liliana will rise to the bait of Giovanni’s desertion by also dancing with someone else, playing tit for tat. Spliced into all this are scenes at the factory, from earlier in the day, that explain the source of Liliana’s unhappiness. In bits and pieces we see Giovanni’s being offered the new job and accepting, which will mean his moving to Sicily, leaving behind, in Milan, Liliana as well as his father. (The “new job”—to me, it seems a ruse: something expediently offered that won’t, finally, accrue to Giovanni’s benefit—is as part of the team constructing the new plant.) We see Giovanni tell his bosses that he isn’t married—the truth, but also a bit of a lie, since he is engaged to be married and hence not as “free” to move as he pretends. Indeed, we also see him arrange for his 70-year-old father, who has been living with him, to be put into a group “home” in his absence. Giovanni is all that assuages Liliana’s loneliness in life, and it will take time before they can reunite. It’s a company promotion for Giovanni; it almost seems like a death sentence for Liliana. Giovanni’s flight to Sicily occurs the next day.

The editing is the key. The shafts of workday “explanation” penetrating the nighttime social scene between Giovanni and Liliana is visual irony, since it’s the edited-in bits—work—that controls the social, private life of the engaged couple (and Giovanni’s father’s current situation), not vice versa. Moreover, the compound suggests the fragmentation of their lives that their work-enforced separation will impose. What a marvelous example of form expressing thematic content.

Giovanni’s plane takes off in daylight and lands in Sicily at night; Giovanni has probably never flown in an airplane before. While the work site is spectacular, Giovanni must first contend with unpleasant hotel accommodations—the cramped space of his room, the sterile corridor, and the almost desolate nature of the restaurant downstairs, especially when compared to the Milanese dance hall. (When Giovanni is finally settled in his own apartment, the effect is no different, and Olmi stresses the exploitation of imported workers from another angle: the ridiculously expensive nature of the tiny, threadbare accommodations available to them.) Thus begins Giovanni’s terribly lonely stay in Sicily—on a realistic level, the separation from all that’s familiar to him, including Milan, Liliana, his father, his co-workers; metaphorically, an encapsulation of his welding work itself, but for the first time unmitigated in its alienating quality by any family or social life away from work. We, at least, are compelled by what we see to address the nature of Giovanni’s workday life apart from the normal context of the rest of his life that makes his labor bearable. By extension, we are moved to reflect on hard or monotonous labor in a more general sense, to consider the plight of workers from two opposite ends: what might reduce the alienating nature of their labor (for instance, reduced work hours, alternating work days, and vacations); the level of compensation and benefits that’s appropriate given the sacrifices that workers must make and the torture, or near torture, that they must endure. This is a far more subtle because indirect, more original and complex, though no less powerful, description of the alienating nature of labor than Jean-Luc Godard would present in both British Sounds (released in the U.S. as See You at Mao) and Pravda (both 1969), in one of which a slow tracking shot through a factory discloses different persons engaged in monotonous, and monotonously similar, work, and in the other of which the same idea is conveyed by a fixed camera showing a single soul engaged in grindingly repetitive work.

In this regard, something must be said about the single most celebrated image in The Fiancés—one of the most fantastically beautiful shots in all of cinema: like Roman candles or a herd of shooting stars against the dark sky, showers of sparks falling from the worksite. For me, the image is sorely ironic. The beauty is something that we see while the workers who are inadvertently creating it do not. While the workers are in the scene, hence in no position even to notice the spectacle, we have the benefit of Olmi’s long-shot. There’s another such image in the film, of mounds of salt. Olmi doesn’t show us the labor that went into raking these up; he shows us the outcome. What we see is eerily lovely, but because of the context that this film provides we find irony here also, on two fronts. One, the visual beauty is for us, but the workers who inadvertently and laboriously created it are exempt from the pleasure we find in the sight; for them, the mounds of salt encapsulate the backbreaking nature of their labor. In addition, these rows of salt mounds on a stretch of almost depressingly flat land perfectly project the loneliness, isolation, dehumanization and disconnection from all that’s familiar to them that Giovanni and other workers there must feel. Again, Olmi’s distancing strategy sets our minds on an analytical course.

Giovanni’s off-work wanderings through a bleak landscape, especially given the theme of alienation, reveal the influence of Michelangelo Antonioni. This foot travel is also another example of Olmi’s distancing, thought-provoking use of irony. On one level, it’s simply the case that, disconnected from Milan and all that’s familiar to him, Giovanni in these new surroundings has no place to go. Hence, he drifts; he wanders. However, the irony lies elsewhere; for again we see this fish out of water in a way that describes and defines the “water” he is normally in. Whether in Milan or down south, Giovanni is “going nowhere.” In Milan, his social and familial entanglements may have obscured this from our view; in Sicily, where Giovanni is on his own, we confront this in the visual metaphor for it that Olmi has conjured. We may infer in this instance that what we see is correlative to what Giovanni himself may be feeling, now that caring for his father and looking forward to marrying Liliana no longer distract his capacity for reflection.

Needless to say, the relationship between Giovanni and Liliana takes a terrible beating. Letters unanswered, the separation itself, the wayward thoughts that seize the agitated imagination: all these help to make Liliana feel that she is “losing” Giovanni. It should be noted, too, that Giovanni succumbs to his loneliness to the detriment of his bond with his fiancée. Absence makes the heart grow fickle—or, by way of compensation in Liliana’s case, fearful and desperate. Again, the context that Olmi’s film provides takes these events out of the realm of moralistic or primarily psychological consideration; again, what we see in these two individual lives, and in their relationship, is the extent to which Giovanni’s work determines their rocky course. To be sure, in the imagined face-to-face encounters that accompany their eventual stream of back-and-forth letters, Liliana imputes to their separation a greater closeness between the two; but in the context of the film’s use of irony, this matches Giovanni’s guilty wishfulness and Liliana’s unhappiness, suggested here by her too great insistence on unmitigated joy. It’s decisive to my reading of the film that the two end in this fantasy domain; they never really reunite. Liliana’s worry that Giovanni would “disappear” has materialized.

There’s another way to approach The Fiancés, and I at least must make note of it. This film is very much a companion-piece to Olmi’s previous and more famous film, Il posto (The Job—released in the U.S. as The Sound of Trumpets, 1961), about a suburban boy’s first work experiences—finally, a desk job in a large corporation in the city, in a room of rows of similarly occupied desks—following high school graduation. Domenico’s “job” implies both his reduction and imprisonment. At first, The Fiancés almost seems like a continuation of Il posto, which ends in a dance hall much as The Fiancés begins in one. However, surrealistic elements, befitting Domenico’s still adventurous young mind, make Il posto a different kind of film than The Fiancés. In retrospect, the one-year-later film implies the numbing of the human mind that Giovanni’s years of labor have induced.

Olmi wrote and directed The Fiancés, and Lamberto Caimi cinematographed—though not so gorgeously as the foolishly enhanced DVD suggests. Carlo Cabrini is faultless as Giovanni. However, in her richer role as Liliana, Anna Canzi is even better. It is absolutely necessary for Olmi’s intentions that, for all her anxiety, lack of self-confidence regarding her relationship with Giovanni, and pleadings, Liliana must not seem to be a nag, even in the slightest degree; if she had seemed a nag, the viewer’s attention might shift from the socioeconomic and political realm, where Olmi wishes to keep it, to the moralistic and primarily psychological. Tall order; yet Canzi, while projecting Liliana’s feelings to the full, somehow avoids all the lurking pitfalls that might have wobbled Olmi’s intent. She is superb.

The Fiancés won the Catholic Film Office Award (OCIC) at Cannes. And, of course, it ought to have won the prize, as its humanity is unassailable.

More than fifteen years later, Olmi would find art-house success with the peasant epic Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), which I once slandered and dismissed with this too-clever summation: “De Sica, and ye shall find.” My appreciation of Olmi’s Tree, to say the least, has grown over the years. Nevertheless, The Fiancés is trimmer (a mere 77 minutes), tauter, and fuller besides; The Tree of Wooden Clogs, more diffuse. The Fiancés is a masterpiece.

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2 thoughts on “THE FIANCÉS (Ermanno Olmi, 1962)

  1. This is a wonderful film. I believe the editing of the final sequence makes the resolution of Giovanni and Liliana’s situation ambiguous.
    Is that motorbike ride a flashback or their reunion. Myself, I can’t accept that they would be terminally separated.
    But they are relatively unimportant. The “economic miracle” must continue. I find that this film hits much harder than more direct statements such as Rosi’s “Hands Over the City”.

    Masterpiece indeed.

  2. Wonderful appreciation of one of my absolute favorite films. Olmi perfectly captures the devastating loneliness and aimlessness of the modern laborer, and the film is deeply moving in its simplicity and quietude.

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