By Ermanno Olmi’s own admission, I fidanzati (The Engagement), his third feature, is a pivotal work in his career.1 His first feature, Il tempo si è fermato (Time Stood Still, 1959) had been accused by Italian critics of being too documentary-like, of relying too much on improvisation, of “not really being a film.” With his second feature, Il posto (The Job, 1961), the director wanted to prove that he could, while still keeping his artistic freedom, deliver a more traditional narrative. He considered the success of this attempt his “vengeance”; and, therefore, once he had proven he could do what was expected from him, from that point on he would do things the way he chose, starting to question the medium and its conventions.

This approach is obvious from I fidanzati’s first sequence. A dance hall is being prepared for the evening. People wait along the walls or sit at tables. Musicians get their instruments ready. Dust is thrown down to make the floor less slippery. There are noises, but not much conversation. Then the music starts. Looking at this crowd, we are wondering: who are the heroes? Where are they? Five minutes have passed before we realise that a late-arriving couple, seemingly upset and not talking to each other – and, at first, not even dancing together – are the protagonists. Later in the film, we learn how important the dance hall, and dancing in general, is for them.

The dance sequence is interrupted by flashbacks in which their situation is explained: the man, Giovanni (Carlo Cabrini), a welder, is offered a promotion, being sent from Milan to Sicily for at least 18 months to help the company he works for to establish a subsidiary; there is a shortage of skilled workers in the south, and he sees this as an opportunity for advancement. His fiancée, Liliana (Anna Canzi), does not agree, seeing this separation as a hindrance to their relationship. This refined structure, a jumping back and forth in time, will persist all through the film. As it progresses, we realise that these are not simple flashbacks or flash-forwards, but rather a subtle way to trace the mental state and psychological progress of our hero. Olmi himself stated: “There are not flashbacks, at least not in the traditional sense. They are close to that ‘cinema of memory’ that is now coming into being, that goes beyond the conventional paths of film narratives in order to reach a multi-directional narrative […] freed from time and space.”2

Indeed, it is difficult not to think of a contemporaneous filmmaker like Alain Resnais when watching the subtle montage of subjective flashbacks, flash-forwards and dreamlike sequences. This is not to say that the two directors do precisely the same thing – more, that they employ similar technical and artistic devices in different ways, in different geographical, social and cultural milieux. When Olmi states that he tried not to remained chained to the real time, but to “see how temporal logic is not made only of the present, but suspended somewhere between the past and the future,”3 one can relate his thinking to the Resnais of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) or L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, 1961). But I fidanzati is like a Resnais more solidly anchored in reality, with a recognisable immediacy.

There is also the theatricality of the action that I fidanzati’s director shares with Resnais. Olmi admits freely that he was a theatre aficionado in his youth before coming to cinema (and he would later stage both theatre and opera productions). Characters are spectators (often invisible, watching from behind blinds, curtains, partitions), and, in turn, actors (often ignored by the public-within-the-film). From the beginning of I fidanzati, the main characters seem to wear masks for their public personae: she, that of dignified suffering; he, that of a perplexed composure. I would argue that one of the main themes of the film is the falling of masks that prevent communication, and a journey towards dialogue and comprehension.

In Giovanni’s journey in Sicily, one of the crucial moments is his visit to the Carnival, where many in the crowd wear masks that are capable of disguising anyone or anything. He is told that, in order to not be recognised, masked women don’t even talk; yet he dances and talks to such a mask with apparent ease of communication. He is made to wear an abandoned mask by other participants in the festival. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, carnival “belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself, but shaped according to a certain pattern of play […] Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people.”4

It is the Carnival dance, melancholic and without future as it is (one character remarks that, in one week of Carnival, local people live for a whole year of intensity) that gives the hero a voice, timid at first and more personal and assertive as the film approaches its end. The voice comes slowly, more and more confident and articulate. The liberation through ritual and anonymity is a revelation (with a small ‘r’) that can bring the Revelation (in a ritualistic, existential way).

Following his participation in this collective celebration, Giovanni has a dream – or a vision? A daydream? It is deliberately left ambiguous – in which the people of the dance hall from the beginning wear masks or Carnival costumes, dancing to the same tune we have previously heard. Only after that, after the final fall of the masks, does Giovanni find a voice to communicate with Liliana: first, by letters that become increasingly elaborate and intimate; and, finally, by phone, whereby the conversation is a bit awkward, but is nonetheless a real conversation, ending on a promise that he will call again on another Sunday (when it is cheaper).

There is no certainty of living happily ever after at the end of the film. Instead, Giovanni wanders through a Sicily that looks different from its postcard images. Ugo Casiraghi notes that Olmi’s film makes the spectator see a familiar land through new eyes: “here the South American carnivalesque […] there a landscape with a Chinese flavour […] and in the neo-industrial images, a whiff of science fiction.”5 In I fidanzati, the land itself is made to shed its mask(s).

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I fidanzati (Italy 1963 77 mins)

Prod. Co: Titanus, Sicilia, S.E.C.I. “22 Dicembre” Prod: Goffredo Lombardo Dir: Ermanno Olmi Scr: Ermanno Olmi Ed: Carla Colombo Art Dir: Ettore Lombardi Phot: Lamberto Caimi Music: Gianni Ferrio

Cast: Carlo Cabrini, Anna Canzi

Endnotes:

  1. Lorenzo Codelli, “Entretien avec Ermanno Olmi”, Positif, vol. 185 (September 1976), p. 47.
  2. Leonhard H. Gmür, “Rencontre avec Ermanno Olmi”, Cahiers du cinéma, vol. 157 (July 1964), p. 28.
  3. Codelli, op. cit., p. 48.
  4. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 7.
  5. Ugo Casiraghi, quoted in Antonio R. Daniele, “Italiani e lavoro: il cinema di Ermanno Olmi negli anni del Boom,” Annali d’Italianistica, vol. 32 (2014), p. 362.