“We’ve been sweethearts for so long, so many years. More than sweethearts — you know what I mean — but we’ve never really spoken the way two lovers should. We each kept our thoughts to ourselves and were content just being together. But perhaps our being together was becoming a mere habit. Perhaps we didn’t realize we were each still alone.”
When Liliana (Anna Canzi) and Giovanni (Carlo Cabrini), the titular fiances of Ermanno Olmi’s 1963 film I Fidanzati, first appear onscreen, they might easily be mistaken for near-strangers on an awkward first date instead of the long-time lovers that they are. Upon entering a dance hall, they settle down at a small table along the wall and sit there in silence, until at last Giovanni rises to his feet and stands in front of Liliana. “Well?” he asks. No reply; she looks up at him, then turns away. Annoyed but seemingly not surprised, he returns to his seat for a little while before getting up again in order to dance with someone else.
A few brief, fragmentary flashbacks soon offer an explanation for the tension between them: Giovanni, a welder, has been offered a promotion if he agrees to move from Milan to Sicily for a year and a half to work at his company’s plant there. “Look, if I don’t take it, there are ten others who will,” he tells Liliana in one of these flashbacks. Whatever she might have said to him, either before or after, is left to the viewer’s imagination, though he gripes, “For once a poor guy like me gets the chance to get ahead, and all she can do is whine.” Perhaps it’s not so much that she has nothing to say as that he isn’t interested in listening. Only in the final quarter of the film does she give voice to her thoughts and feelings about their relationship, first in a remembered confrontation about Giovanni’s affair with another woman and subsequently in a series of letters; it’s as if he isn’t ready, or even able, to hear her until then.
It takes the solitude he experiences during his Sicilian sojourn to open his ears and eyes. The problem isn’t that the people he meets there are unfriendly or unkind — on the contrary. The other men from his company, for example, make an effort to include him, explaining the local culture and inviting him to a festival, and his landlady shares her water with him on a Sunday, when it’s unavailable from the tap (though he appears to find her a bit too friendly in that case). In fact, he encounters civility, at least, almost everywhere he goes. Even when a waiter tries to make him feel guilty for showing up at a restaurant at closing time (“It may surprise you, but waiting tables is exhausting work”), it emerges that the man’s bad mood is mostly due to his wife’s absence and his infant son’s mysterious illness. Maybe it helps just to talk to someone, despite the fact that Giovanni can’t do anything except reply, “I’m sorry.”
Giovanni is a rather reserved man, which is probably one of the main reasons why his interactions with the people around him rarely go beyond the polite or the superficial. He’s accepted and welcomed by his co-workers, to be sure, but they seem to talk to him more than he talks to them. They tell him, among other things, that the prices in that part of Sicily have been hiked up since the company came in, essentially nullifying the financial advantages of relocating there. “All things considered, it’s not really such a good deal to come work down here anymore,” one of them says, and another adds, “Maybe if your family comes with you. A lot of them bring their wives, but it’s a heck of a life.”
For the solitary Giovanni, it’s certainly a dull life, an empty life. When he’s not working, he spends most of his time wandering around aimlessly, observing but not belonging. Even amidst the wild crowd at the festival, he has an air of detachment about him. Handled differently, I Fidanzati could be a much more overtly dramatic film about a person facing an existential crisis; the “man adrift” concept suggests something like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957). Instead, Olmi keeps things understated and grounded in reality, aided by the often documentary-like shooting style and the use of unglamorous, non-professional actors. Nothing particularly extraordinary happens during Giovanni’s time in Sicily, yet his experiences make for compelling viewing, sometimes purely because they’re so mundane and, consequently, relatable — such as dealing with cramped living quarters. Some of the things he encounters are amusing (a young woman’s entire family accompanies her to her job), some sad (a man is injured at work), some downright odd (he goes to a barbershop and gets a shave from a teenage boy in a clerical collar). Olmi manages to convey a great deal through striking images, fleeting interactions and sudden flashbacks, and also through sound. Although there’s a little low-key non-diegetic music, what stands out is the silence, and the noise that occasionally breaks in — a blaring television in a room of half-slumbering men, a loudspeaker making announcements about a lost wallet — has a loneliness of its own.
At last, into this silence and solitude comes a letter from Liliana. Initially, instead of talking about herself, she writes about Giovanni’s father — a septuagenarian who drinks too much and had to be left behind in Milan, illustrating the loneliness of the old as well as the young. Gradually, however, as she and Giovanni correspond, they open up to each other to a greater degree than when he was still at home; she confesses, for instance, that when he first asked her to dance, back when she was fifteen or sixteen, she turned him down because she didn’t know how. Communication, lost to them over the years as they started to take each other for granted, is easier on paper, and the distance between them gives them a new perspective. “We’re much closer now,” she declares with unwonted eloquence. “I realized it when I thought back on all our time together. I feel as if we’re starting all over again. It’s like reliving the same feelings, but as if we’re somehow different, somehow better.” The film becomes more stylized in this sequence as well, with Liliana speaking her letters on camera and romantic music swelling on the soundtrack.
And yet, significantly, Olmi doesn’t end the film on this sentimental note. Afterwards, Giovanni calls Liliana on the telephone. Only his side of the conversation is heard, and it’s short, slightly stilted, lacking in depth; he talks about the weather and his reluctance to go to work. The final shot depicts Giovanni caught in the rain, frowning up at the sky, back in the unromantic, sometimes dreary world of his everyday life. Will he and Liliana remember what they’ve learned once they’re together again, seeing each other day in and day out? Time will tell — but, like Liliana’s words at the start of the film, their future is left to the viewer’s imagination.