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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Double Date

What happened to arthouse films with a meaning? With a sense of criticism and real, raw courage in telling stories no one wants to see? You see, there was a time when directors had extraordinary visions; they could look into the past, the could look into the future, they could even look inside the soul of a human being. Directors like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman breathed cinema and lived through it with the help of their own ideas, their own little worlds. They were recognized as leaders of a new cinematic wave. Fellini was the head of neo-realism, while Bergman led the Swedish new wave. These were two giants that up to this day remain glorified as two of the best filmmakers to have ever walked the planet. So why is it, that their fellow filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, didn’t get as much recognition? For one, Antonioni painted mature, depressing and honest portraits of our society, of the relationships between humans in an age of machines and robots. He explored what others weren’t capable of exploring. What others weren’t capable of understanding. Scorsese praised Antonioni’s L’Avventura as the greatest film ever made and yet I’m not here to talk about L’Avventura, but its sequel, a very key part to his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents” – La Notte (1961).

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The guilty protagonists.

La Notte is one of those movies that you probably never heard of and yet you have no idea how important it was for the evolution of the present day cinema. It was a new take on alienation and fading relationships. It was a testament to our powerlessness in the face of haunting feelings and emotions, usually crushed by our surroundings and the omnipresent role of technology played in our daily lives. The performances of the great Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and the one and only, Monica Vitti, all add up to a story about a married couple that’s oblivious to its crumbling relationship. The couple consists of Giovanni Pontano, a rookie writer and intellectual, and his wife, Lidia. Once they’re bored with their own lives, they’ll go and meet the mysterious Valentina Gherardini at a very special party.

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Giovanni.
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Lidia.
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And the mysterious force that is Valentina.

Antonioni’s films were always about something more than just what’s on screen. Sometimes even the director himself wouldn’t know what his movie was about until he entered the editing room to put the whole thing together. And yet, once you see the title card that reads “FINE” (The End), you will immediately know that you’ve witnessed something spectacular, something deep and meaningful that can only be the work of a bravado filmmaker and a master at his craft. With Antonioni it doesn’t matter if it’s his early works or his latter ones, you will feel honored to have watched a movie made by one of the greats.

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A hypnotized society.

La Notte is all about spaces. It’s about crumbling spaces. Everything you see doesn’t mean a thing when love is absent. Antonioni’s camera is always moving, switching to various angles and compositions. It is like an opera, small on the outside, but once you hear it, once you see the whole thing being rehearsed and played in front of an audience your jaw will drop. That’s how Antonioni directs his movies. The actors in all of his films must keep moving. Their movements can be fast, slow, it doesn’t matter. The actors will keep moving until the climax when usually everything is still, or silent (like in Antonioni’s later Zabriskie Point, seconds before one of the loudest explosions in cinema history). In fact, Antonioni directs La Notte in a very specific fashion: he starts off from inserting the characters into a busy, vast, humongous location, in this case the city of Milan. We witness as our characters try to find themselves and resolve their problems in the city where there is not enough space for truth and self discovery. That’s when they is a transition location-wise. The characters are invited to a party in a villa situated right outside of Milan. It is a place of lust, excess and wealth. Everything that haunts us and disturbs us about the two protagonists will be exposed at this very party.

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Giovanni’s vision.
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Lidia’s vision.

I will not go into detail as to what exactly happens. That is not my objective. That is for you to discover. However, I want to point out a few things that stand out to me. Giovanni and his wife are presented in the beginning of the movie as two people who are driven by something. They seem to share similar views and values. They visit a sick friend at the hospital. A friend that is slowly dying of cancer. A friend that used to be madly in love with Lidia and yet she chose Giovanni over him. As soon as the couple exits the hospital room, they go different ways. Antonioni isn’t interested in pointing out their differences together. They are always separated, in order to make their personalities and the problems they carry with them stand out in the viewer’s eye. Giovanni is tormented by the sudden burst of fame he achieved after having published his first book. Meanwhile, Lidia wanders around the empty streets of Milan on a hot summer afternoon. Giovanni looks for isolation in his spacious apartment. Lidia looks for isolation in the deserted outskirts of the industrial city. Giovanni is being watched by his neighbor from a distant window. Lidia is being watched by a group of boys looking for a fight around the block. Antonioni presents his characters in contrast with a white washed wall, a car, a lamp post or even a set of fireworks exploding in the sky. He translates feelings and distorted memories into objects, landscapes, street geometry. His characters are never free, they always feel trapped in a maze created by the director on purpose. His purpose is to expose their weakness and show their true colors.

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Giovanni’s strange encounters.
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Everybody’s looking for love.

Monica Vitti, an actress who’s worked on four different Antonioni projects, adds a feeling of the supernatural with her appearance as the mysterious Valentina. She is the woman, or better yet, the creature that changes everything for the married couple. Her presence is felt as the presence of a surreal character in a material world. She is a troubled woman that looks for salvation in Giovanni’s arms. She causes trouble and at the same time backs off when it’s time for her to go. She appears from nowhere and at the end fades into black. Is she really there? Antonioni doesn’t give us a straight answer. He is more interested in exploring the change in the relationship between Giovanni and Lidia after that one magical night. Magical or nightmarish? We will never know. Antonioni’s characters usually rise from the ashes and end in flames, in order to be born again.

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Valentina slowly goes away.

La Notte is no exception. It is a study of society, of modern love and our distorted understanding of memories. It is an interesting take on the reasons why people decide to live together, to love each other. Giovanni and Lidia have nothing to live for and yet they feel compelled to force themselves on one another just so they don’t have to face the scary sense of loneliness. Antonioni’s movies were meant to be that way. Powerful. Towering. Small. That is his magical trick. That’s why he’s a master. He could build an adventure with just a bunch of sticks and stones.

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Is there hope?
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Well, is there?