Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Less a movie than an extended meditation on the realities of working-class living, I Fidanzati
is a very progressive art film that drops the melodrama from neorealism in favor of an almost
ascetic documentary approach. The film is as much a record of a changing Italy as it is a
study of separated lovers; it's as time-fractured by memory as a more showy art film, but
communicates much more clearly. Ermanno Olmi's direct style looks like the kind of 'realist' film
that mainstream 70s filmmakers were aiming for. Criterion's presentation is visually stunning and
backed up with some choice extras.
Long engaged, Giovanni (Carlo Cabrini) and Liliana (Anna Canzi) go to the
dance hall where they first met, but have a miserable evening: he's taking a 16-month trip
to Sicily. It's an employment opportunity he can't reject, but Anna is convinced their
engagement will fall
apart, and they don't part happily. In Sicily, Giovanni is lonely. He finds a ramshackle room
in town and takes long walks, noticing how the rural land is being changed by industrialization.
Eventually, he and Liliana exchange letters again, raising hopes that their
separation might turn out to be a mutual benefit.
A simple story told without undue elaboration, I Fidanzati (the fiancés) again
shows director Ermanno Olmi's undervalued strengths. The acting of his two non-professional leads
is amazing. He gets from them performances that would be the envy of older neorealists like
Rossellini. Sometimes they're just moods communicated in facial expressions. Olmi is claimed to
be the next stage in the development of the neorealist movement, and this picture and his previous
Il Posto prove it. Instead of focusing on a
dramatic event for the center of his film, he chooses the mundane problems of ordinary working people.
In this case, the problem is a job that breaks up a young couple, the kind who have already waited years for
the opportunity to marry. Decent, hopeful, but too old to react like kids, Giovanni and Liliana
become morose when he decides he has to leave. It's clearly the right choice. He's a skilled
welder, and the job brings advancement that might fund a proper marriage. But Liliana knows what
can happen to lovers split apart, and sinks into depression.
We follow Giovanni to a sunny, rather backward Sicily, where the company men patronize the locals, and
the locals persist in attitudes (like staying home when it rains) inconsistent with the new industrial
scheme of things. His experiences are too dull to be adventures, and too interesting to be wholly dull.
The only romantic opportunity comes from his landlady, and Giovanni quickly retreats to
his room. Sicilian custom keeps local young women far out of his reach. At a big costume party, he
dances with a veiled girl who can tell he's lonely, but she kisses him only under cover of
anonymity. Just the same, we eventually tag Giovanni as a guy not looking to stray.
In a story about separation, the natural reaction would be to give each partner various temptations
to give in to, or overcome. I Fidanzati has no patience for this; in the months Carlo and
Liliana are apart, neither goes looking for other companionship. Thus they get a chance to weigh
the meaning of their relationship. Late in the game he and Liliana
revive their romance through letters, finding in their separation that the bond between them is
real. It gives the otherwise eventless conclusion a nice ray of hope.
Anna Canzi has one of those fascinating faces, mature but transparently emotional. We're able to
read a complexity of response into her expressions. Olmi knows that dialogue and other
literary/theatrical conventions can't get at the real truth of people, any more than they are
useful to understand the people we live with, or even ourselves. His quiet observations of his
actors have a power no playwright could equal.
Carlo Cabrini plays a working man with a rough exterior and crew cut that contrasts with his polite
and sensitive nature. He looks like a cross between Jack Palance and John Philip Law, but without the
attendant narcissism. A closed-off kind of guy, everything we learn about him comes from his body
language. he's a perfect hero to follow. Olmi makes us feel comfortable with his actors as if they
were people we knew.
Criterion's DVD of I Fidanzati has a spotless widescreen transfer - I guess Olmi
made the aspect ratio jump after Il Posto. The director and his collaborator/friend
Tullio Kezich return for another illustrated interview, which again illuminates the movie
better than could a chapter in a film book. Kent Jones supplies another pointed essay. The
original trailer tries its darndest to inject commercial conflicts into a film that has none.
Criterion's cover design is so similar to Il Posto, I thought that this film was a sequel to it, and
was initially disappointed when I Fidanzati didn't turn out to be the engagement story of
Domenico and Antonietta. But the story of Giovanni and Liliana was just as interesting.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Fidanzati rates:
Supplements: interview doc: Mysteries of Life; trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 25, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson