Long Distance Call

Relationships. Ugh. Just the sound of this word in a cinematic context makes some people roll their eyes. What else can be said about relationships in movies? After all, we’ve seen all of them, all of them under the same light. Mostly negative. Think Revolutionary Road, American Beauty, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blue Valentine. Think in the line of thoughtful tearjerkers such as Carol and Far From Heaven. Even comedies. Mostly comedies, crappy ones. As a moviegoer, you’ll think to yourself: enough! We have seen all of them. We know what a relationship is. We know the different forms they assume in movies. There is the sex-driven one (Love & Other Drugs), the forbidden one (Brokeback Mountain), the subtle one (Out of Africa), and finally the goofy one (The Big Sick). Yet somehow, after all these years of world cinema, there is a very limited number of movies that mention one particular form of relationship: the long distance relationship. Sure, movies like Sleepless in Seattle and The Notebook tackled the specific form but I highly doubt any of us have taken those movies seriously, right? Now, let’s be honest, auteur cinema has never shown passion nor interest for this subject matter. Directors like Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Scorsese and Kubrick, and many others, as good and as artistic as they all are, interested in the human condition, human nature and whatnot, have never delved head-on into the depths of a long distance relationship. For most highbrow filmmakers, relationships are often considered an item that is to be used as background information for a particular character, eg. (Henry Hill’s relationship with his wife, Karen, in Goodfellas), so why should they be attracted to long distance relationships at all? Well, today I’m here to tell you about an Italian director who accepted the challenge at a very young age and successfully directed a beautiful film about this very subject. Today, I aim to pen down a few thoughts about the long distance relationship depicted in Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati (1963).

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Liliana and Giovanni.

The late great Ermanno Olmi passed away earlier this month and I believe he did so as one of the most overlooked directors of all time, a true visionary and simply put, a brilliant artist who undeservedly suffered from a lack of popularity outside of Italy even after he won the prestigious Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 for his magnum opus, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, an exhilarating take on life in the Italian countryside in the late 19th century and the struggle of that particular community of outcasts and social rejects. In short, that’s who Olmi was for those of you who haven’t had the chance to study his work; a man of the people, a man interested in people and the mechanisms within each individual. He was a director who gave a heartbeat to every  single living thing and cared for his characters like no other artist of the neo-realist wave that took over Italy’s film industry post World-War II all the way until the early 60s. As to the film, I Fidanzati is one of his lesser known works, often overshadowed by the aforementioned Tree of Wooden Clogs and the newly restored Il Posto, Olmi’s second feature about a young man desperately looking for a job in Milan. Still concerned with Italy’s Northern industrialism and focused on the local working class, Olmi’s I Fidanzati (literally, The Fiances) tells the story of how a relationship needs to be worked at with care and tenderness in order for it to survive during hard times of separation and doubt, in order for it to grow even during long stretches of darkness and despair.

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The opening dance.

Well then, how does Olmi do it? Where does the magic lie? First of all, the setting. The opening sequence tells us everything we need to know about the relationship we’re about to follow: an empty dance hall slowly but surely begins to fill up with locals. Women and men of all ages start dancing to live music, and while the dance continues and the music becomes livelier by the minute, we meet the two protagonists, Liliana and Giovanni, looking lost and quite uncomfortable being around each other. The reason for this discomfort is revealed in a scene that incercuts with the dance sequence; Giovanni is notified of an available job promotion all the way down in Sicily, in a new factory department, and as a result he must leave immediately. So what is the secret to this opening? Olmi does not pull any punches, instead he aims straight for the jugular and decides to pose the first and most important obstacle that the two protagonists will try to overcome as the movie progresses: distance, an overwhelming physical distance that might threaten their engagement, and eventually, their wedding plans. Giovanni, in frustration, dances with a stranger, and so does Liliana. Their fear and preoccupation are expressed through the joyful practice of dancing, an element that will set the tone for the rest of the movie, an element that should be strictly considered for poetic purposes. Eventually, right before Giovanni’s plane leaves, the two of them dance for one last time. What follows afterwards is Giovanni’s trip to Sicily, and this is where Olmi’s magical trick takes place.

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Giovanni’s loneliness.

Giovanni is, in my opinion, one of the least predictable male characters I have ever witnessed on screen, and through this unpredictability bursts out a profound sense of humanity that you rarely see in films nowadays. Giovanni’s new life in Sicily consists of habitual-driven actions and routine. He awakens, has a cup of coffee at the local bar, goes to work, comes home, goes to bed, repeat. The separation is expressed through the prominent use of wide-screen shot empty locations; bars, streets, factories. Giovanni’s loneliness is a result of Liliana’s absence as only she could fill the empty spaces he finds himself in. His taciturnity is his shield: Giovanni is a polite, quiet and respectful worker who, as demonstrated through a use of flashbacks and jump-cuts, can also turn into a sensitive lover, a dear companion and a faithful fiancée. But all of these listed qualities exist and can be transmitted to the viewer only because of the physical separation the two young lovers are  subject to. Olmi builds a desolate, lonely and silent world around Giovanni, a world, or better yet, an island like Sicily that torments its own inhabitants with an unbearable climate, little to no nature and the same sort of industrial way of life as Giovanni encountered in the familiar North.

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Sicilian nights… nights filled with thoughts.

Giovanni in his free time embarks on short trips across the region to find meaning, a feeling of accomplishment, joy, anything. He visits churches, goes to mass, celebrates a saint’s day with the rest of the inhabitants of the same town he lives in, seeks out fellow Northern workers, writes letters and eventually– constantly thinks about Liliana. The director allows the two lovers to converse throughout the movie through flashbacks, so that their relationship, instead of suffering and feeling threatened, is actually built upon. All of a sudden this separation becomes the driving engine of the relationship as it enables both characters to experience loneliness and regret, two essential elements of a real, matrimonial relationship. Their love grows through the physical distance and through the isolated life that Giovanni is forced to lead on this remote island. During moments of fatigue and helplessness, Liliana’s voice-over echoes across the screen, thus demonstrating the multitude of ways Olmi goes about solidifying their bond, instead of weakening it. Unlike so many other films, most of them following the Hollywood relationship recipe, that try to weaken their characters by presenting them with new challenges (eg, how to resist another woman), new enemies, etc, Olmi poses the unnatural emptiness as the only obstacle worth overcoming. In other words, I Fidanzati is as much a film about endurance, and the strength of the human spirit as it is a film about a specific relationship.

There is a beautiful moment worth noting near the end of this 70-minute-long film; Liliana reads aloud a letter she’s written to Giovanni, where she tells him about the time she got his letter. She says: ”I felt excited and happy running up the stairs. But then suddenly that happiness frightened me.” It is as if this sudden change in her daily routine made her aware of the kind of burden this long distance relationship has put on her shoulders. Suddenly, happiness has become an exclusive feeling in Liliana’s daily life, away from Giovanni and his peaceful, reassuring presence. All of a sudden, this distance has become a thrill to her. A reason not to lose hope.

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Happiness in its purest form.
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The Sad Story

After World War II, cinema changed forever. Audiences developed a different kind of sensibility, and suddenly the stories that were being told, usually touched upon very depressive themes rather than  melodramatic ones. European cinema, particularly Italian cinema, managed to completely change the way we react and perceive film as an art form. Italian Neorealism was meant to tell stories that no one dared to tell before. It followed characters who came from poverty and struggle. The camera acted as a reporter, it zoomed in and shined a light on the unseen and the unwanted. There was Roberto Rossellini with his War Trilogy (Rome Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero). Then there was Luchino Visconti with Obsession and La Terra Trema. These were movies that came straight up from the ground, from the dirt, the ashes. The protagonists of these movies were the common folk, the poor and lonely. And yet, for me Vittorio De Sica was the one who did it best. Bicycle Thieves, his most famous work and one that is often considered to be the best movie of all time, because of its influence and incredibly audacious vision, opened up a world of post war depression. A world of ruined buildings and unemployed workers. It was honest. His other masterpiece, perhaps his most depressive and heartbreaking one, Umberto D. manages to explore what De Sica left out of Bicycle Thieves.

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An entire nation protesting.

Umberto D. is a hard watch. We witness as the ground crumbles under an old man’s feet. The world, the city of Rome, the universe, are all quickly changing, and not for the better. Umberto is struggling to survive, eating off the rests of food, sleeping in a tiny room, selling anything of value that he possesses, begging his so called friends for just a dime. His only companion? A sweet, intelligent dog. As we witness a few days in Umberto’s life we start to realize that Umberto’s story is the story of a whole nation, a whole underground world that is still there. We don’t see it. But it’s there. Poverty, starvation, loneliness and death. Umberto wanders around the crowded streets of post war Rome, in search of something, someone.

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Honest men are hard to find.

De Sica, like a true reporter with the eye of an eagle, shines a light on the Italian nation. A nation of poor men and women, of rich and privileged selfish people, of homeless dogs and pregnant young girls. Who would have dared to make a movie like this at that time? Umberto is not just an individual. He’s only used as an example by the filmmaker to paint a tragic, depressive, grim image. The camera tortures us with the old man’s presence. It squeezes him, it works him over and doesn’t let go. Sometimes it almost feels like we’re supposed to be on the side of those who take advantage of Umberto and his beloved dog. We’re forced to watch. We’re forced to breathe and struggle alongside the poor old man. You don’t have to like it, says De Sica, but you must think about it. Because yes, the cinematic screen can be a prison sometimes. You feel compelled to watch the moving image, and yet you also want to get away, go for it and run. De Sica’s movie is like a prison cell. You can’t find the keys to unlock it. You become his prisoner.

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The dog, a vagabond creature, is Umberto’s only love. A dying breed.

Umberto, played as usual (in De Sica’s movies) by a non professional actor, is our unwanted hero. Carlo Battisti, the actor and protagonist, brings the raw credibility, the touch of dirt a movies like this desperately needs to deliver its heavy message. We get a taste of a real poor sob walking the streets of Rome in the late 1940s. He’s our hero. He’s our leader. Battisti with his looks, his powerlessness, his innocence and desperation in his eyes, delivers one of the great performances in the history of motion picture. When he begs for money, we sense the humiliation in his gestures. A man, who maybe once upon a time was some kind of an important figure, a hard worker and bread winner, now stands on the street with his hand stretched out and begs for money. He becomes one of the many bricks in a huge brick wall.

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Humiliation.

 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you deliver a punch to the gut. By directing and staging what people struggle to see on a daily basis. By delivering what most of us refuse to believe.

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