"The Fiances" - Ermanno Olmi (1963)

Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi has seen himself more as a craftsman than as an intellectual.  As such, he is different from the typically judgmental writer/author and more like (most of) us – he is a perceiver immersed in the complexity of the world surrounding him.  We generally don’t emphatically act in the clearly defined fashions of the actors that we usually see in films. Olmi evidently understands this, and what distinguishes him from and above most other filmmakers is his ability to tell his cinematic stories in a more naturalistic fashion – closer to the way we ourselves experience the world.  For this reason Olmi is often classified as a Italian Neorealist (and indeed Vittorio de Sica was one of his major influences), but there is a subtle difference.  The Neorealists tended to aim at capturing the “objective” life of ordinary people, as if they were documentarians.  But Olmi (who admittedly was originally a documentary filmmaker) has a way of presenting the world as it is existentially experienced by his characters.  This makes his films less objective, but more authentic.

The Fiances (I Fidanzati, 1963) was Olmi’s third film, following the marvelous Il Posto (1961), and it bears some similarities with its predecessor.  Both films follow the experiences of an ordinary young worker as he tries to adapt himself to a new job and social circumstances.  And both films have overtones concerning the dehumanizing aspects of work life that was becoming standard in modern postwar capitalism.  But The Fiances is not really so much concerned with sociopolitical commentary as it is with something more basic.

The story concerns the small joys and woes of a young Italian couple, the fiances, who have been engaged to be married for some time.  This was common in Italy for years after World War II because of the severe housing shortage that the war had created.  Even fifteen years after the war, there was a significant shortage of adequate housing, and so young couples often had to wait for some time before they could find a suitable apartment to move into and commence married life [1]. This long time of waiting could wear off the bloom of early romantic love.  For the couple in this story, further stress is placed on their relationship by the unhappy prospects of their being separated for some time due to work commitments.

Actually in some respects there doesn’t even seem to be much of a story at all in The Fiances.  That is truly a magical aspect of Olmi’s films in general.  They seem merely to feature only a random sequence of trivial incidents that don’t appear to have a meaningful connection to a coherent narrative.  And yet the cumulative experience of watching these incidents leads to something of an epiphany about life and love.  That is what happens here in The Fiances, and it testifies to Olmi’s extraordinary skill in weaving a meaningful tapestry out of these various scattered elements.

The narrative structure, such as it is, has roughly four sections to it that describe what happens to the two main characters, Giovanni (played by Carlo Cabrini) and Liliana (Anna Canzi).  The focalization of the film is almost entirely on Giovanni throughout.
1 The Departure
The film opens on a local dance hall in Milan where Giovanni and Liliana evidently habitually go for their social life.  The atmosphere of the dance hall is tacky and tasteless, as if all the people have been coming to this joint too many times, and it is now just a bad habit.  The live music that is played by the hired pianist and accordionist has a rather shabby organ-grinder feel to it, but this music persists in the mind of Giovanni and becomes the main musical theme of the film.

At the dance hall, it is evident that Giovanni and Liliana are out of sorts and barely speaking to each other.  This scene is interspersed with a number of flashbacks that provide the background for why the couple is at odds.  Giovanni has received a job-transfer offer that he cannot afford to refuse.  He is a blue-collar welder, and the job offer is a chance to get a pay raise and promotion by spending a year-and-a-half at a construction site in Sicily, several hundred miles to the south. As a proper young woman, Liliana cannot go with Giovanni to Sicily, so it means that they will be separated for a long time.  So naturally Liliana thinks that this will mean an end to their marriage engagement. As he is ready to depart, the quarrel is still not settled, and this section ends with Giovanni on a plane south to Sicily.

2 Arrival in Sicily

In this section the social isolation of Giovanni is clear.  He arrives in Sicily in the evening and checks into a hotel room where he will stay for a few days until he can find a more permanent residence.  Then he has a lonely dinner in the mostly empty hotel restaurant. Giovanni is a taciturn working-class person who listens more than he talks. At work at the construction site the next day, he observes a fellow worker is seriously injured and rushed away in an ambulance.  His foreman tells him that the local Sicilian workers don’t have an adequate work ethic: accustomed to the seasonal work of agricultural workers, they even fail to come to work on rainy days.

3 Giovanni at Leisure
But there are non-working days, too, and Giovanni explores the local area.  He has some time on his own, but again, he is always alone and has no new friends.  He walks into a local church and sits alone piously at a pew in the back.  When a dog enters the church and disrupts a pastoral session for some children, the children all giggle, and Giovanni is amused too.  This is the first time that we see him smile, but he is still alone.

On the bus to the construction site, Giovanni overhears his fellow transfer workers dismissively gossip about the pathetically peasant attitudes of the local Sicilians. 

He later goes to a raucous local street festival which features women dressed in festival masks who are thereby permissibly able to dance with strangers on the crowded square.  Giovanni dances with one such woman, who offers him a kiss but won’t take off her mask.  The festive spirit leads to general drunkenness, and back at the hotel Giovanni even gets into some rowdy pranks with some of the other tenants.

During sections 2 and 3 of the story, Giovanni occasionally has flashback memories of his life in Milan – one associated with this parting argument with the inconsolable Liliana and another one when he danced at the dance hall with a sexy girl with whom he had apparently had a brief affair.  So he is trying to immerse himself in the new surroundings, and maybe drifting away from Liliana.

4 Memories
Giovanni moves out of the hotel he had been staying at and into a barren little hostel room that will be his more permanent accommodation for his time in Sicily. But memories of Liliana keep coming back. He remembers his affair with the sexy Milanese girl and how it had hurt Liliana. And he remembers Liliana’s quiet suffering in response and her quitet heartfelt reaffirmation of her love for him. Now he begins to remember her more fondly. They begin to exchange letters, and this begins the most beautiful part of the film that shines a meaningful light on everything that has come before.  The normally taciturn Giovanni opens up as the letters are read aloud in voiceover:
“Why haven’t you written?  I sent my postcard two weeks ago and still no answer from you. . . . My regards to everyone and a kiss for you.”
Liliana responds that she was afraid to open his letter, fearing that it would be a “good-bye” letter from him:
“I hesitated to write back. . I wasn’t sure you wanted me to.” . . .
“I had lost faith and hope as well.”
As they exchange more letters, we learn that a couple of months have now passed.  The growing tenderness is conveyed by showing Liliana on camera speaking her letters aloud.  She says she doesn’t go dancing anymore, because he is no longer there to dance with her.
“I tried to forget you, to erase you from my thoughts.  But now, thank goodness, everything has changed.”
For his part, Giovanni’s words for her become tender and soulful, as he expresses his ardour for her.  He goes out and swims happily in the ocean, and we know that he is thinking of her.

At the film’s end, it is Sunday and a storm is brewing outside.  Giovanni spontaneously rings up Liliana on the phone and speaks to her. She is alarmed and wonders what’s wrong, but he says he called just because he was thinking of her.  With ominous thunder sounding outside, he speaks tenderly to her for a few minutes, and then hangs up as a torrential downpour with heavy winds drowns the countryside at the close of the film.
The storm at the end of The Fiances is a brilliant touch on the part of Olmi and accentuates the strong emotional feelings at the close.  A number of critics have viewed this closing storm as an indication that the affair between Giovanni and Liliana is either threatened or doomed to die of ennui (for example, [2,3]).  I don’t think so.  To me the storm merely emphasizes their sense of being apart and their vulnerability to external forces.  It shows how powerless they are in the face of exigencides that arise out of the wild, natural world out there, but it does not diminish their longing for each other – it brings greater attention and urgency to it.

The acting on the part of Carlo Cabrini and  Anna Canzi is superb.  They were not professional film actors prior to The Fiances, although they did appear in a few films thereafter. They both effectively portray basically inarticulate working-class people, but they convey magnitudes in their facial expressions, especially Ms. Canzi.

Overall, I am still amazed at the way Olmi does it – the way he stitches together the various mundane depictions of his protagonists’ surroundings so that they convey a sense of melancholy and reflection. And then he turns things around so that loneliness brings awareness and longing for the departed soulmate. This is not just operating according to the realism mythology of going out and find ordinary "real" people and then photographing them. This involves carefully staged theatrics, handling of actors, image composition, and editing. For me, this is closer to the authentic reality of our conscious existence. By doing this he constructs a nuanced inner narrative that conveys his message. The film's narrative movement is epitomized by the musical soundtrack. The "organ-grinder" accordion music theme in the beginning seemed sleazy and cheap, but it gradually comes to symbolize all the times that Giovanni and Liliana were together at the dance hall. While in those earlier times they had gotten into the habit of taking each other for granted, they have later come to look back at those times as wonderful moments that they shared.  And so the accordion theme at the end becomes a beautiful aural motif for their now-recognized true love.

  1. Paul F. Wendt , “Post World-War-II Housing Policies in Italy”, Land Economics, Vol. 38, No. 2 (May, 1962), pp. 113-133.
  2.  Bill Gibron, “Past Perfect: Criterion Classics - I Fidanzati (1963)”, Popmatters, (19 December 2006). 
  3. Kent Jones, “Rhapsody in the Rain”, The Criterion Collection, (23 June, 2003).

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