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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So Long, Friend.

Interaction between actors is key in order to fully enjoy a movie, isn’t it? There have been countless movies, even ambitious ones, with interesting concepts, fine directors, but when the interaction between actors isn’t there everything comes crashing down.  There has to be some sort of understanding between the characters, a feeling of acknowledgment because sometimes actors carry huge egos with them and this can become a problem on screen.

That is why people like to praise chemistry. Chemistry is what we see in Hot FuzzThe Birdcage, Chungking Express, A Bronx Tale or Some Like it Hot. Sometimes movies like to rely on characters rather than plots, and that’s when characters played by actors need some content. They need to have that raw feeling of existence.

Here are my top five movie duos of all time;

  1.  WALTER MATTHAU / JACK LEMMON

    – It’s almost impossible to set these two apart. Nowadays, when people think of comedy they think of Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Steve Carell or Jonah Hill but they also tend to forget an old breed of actors that will never fade away from our screens. Sure, once you had Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis and all those old school faces. However, my personal favorite, a duo of such talented actors that it didn’t matter if it was comedy or drama – they always delivered – has got to be the Matthau / Lemmon engine. They added warmth and genuineness to their relationship on screen. Surely, the fact that they treated each other like brothers off screen played a big role.  When they faced off nobody could stop the laughs. They were that good. They were the real deal.
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2.  SOPHIA LOREN / MARCELLO MASTROIANNI          in  A Special Day

–  They have worked on countless projects together but I need to make the distinction for this one.  Loren and Mastroianni were the giants of Italian cinema for decades. Loren had won an Oscar, while Mastroianni had been nominated 3 times by the time they teamed up for this film. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend it  because a movie like this one doesn’t come around so often.  Lost among countless movies that deal with the same subject matter – fascist rule and oppression – A Special Day shines there where others miss as it keeps the entire drama within an apartment building in Rome and lets the actors do their job. Believe me, it works to perfection. Mastroianni plays a lonely man, clearly afraid of something or someone, while Loren is the mother of four and the wife of a cheating husband. He is on the run, she stays at home and takes care of the family mess. They are cut off from reality and at the same time they are the victims of it. What the two actors achieve in terms of chemistry is untouchable: they share the pain, they share the moments of pure silence, they share laughs and they know when too far is too far. They don’t fall into melodrama. They stay afloat. Together, they represent a cry for freedom.

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3.  HEATH LEDGER / JAKE GYLLENHAAL         in Brokeback Mountain

– If you want to talk about heartbreak, here it is. It’s difficult to pull of a good comedy as a couple but it’s perhaps harder to pull off a good drama as a gay couple.  Ledger and Gyllenhaal immortalized two very different roles in the most memorable way possible.  The story is incredibly important when it comes to Brokeback Mountain, but the performances are even more so. Thank God Ang Lee casted these two magnificent actors because I doubt anyone can think of a better acting duo for this kind of job. It’s the quiet moments that count in Ang Lee’s movie, when the two cowboys feel timid and ashamed of their sexuality.  It’s the moments of hesitation that follow the first kiss between the two. Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is the boyish cowboy of the two.  He is the one who believes in dreams, who thinks anything is possible if taken care of properly. Meanwhile, Ledger plays the quieter one, the tough guy on the exterior. He pulls off one of the best performances by an actor I think we’ll ever see. When these two confront each other, the movie becomes alive because of how well they understand the importance of their roles and their forbidden relationship. The feeling between the two men is palpable and at the end, we want to touch it, bathe in it, but it’s not there anymore. It’s been cut in half.

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4.  JOHN WAYNE  /  WALTER BRENNAN         in Rio Bravo

– The most iconic duo in cinema? Well, for me it’s the pairing of two of the biggest stars of the 40s and 50s. Wayne and Brennan are the essence of the Wild West. If you want to dive into the Western genre, pick any of their movies. My number one choice goes to their pairing in Rio Bravo, a classic movie that in so many ways talks about things that still matter to this day.  John Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a lawman of the dying breed who wants end injustice on the streets of a small town, while Walter Brennan is Stumpy, the devoted long-time deputy of the Sheriff. The two actors, after having worked on a few projects prior to this movie (the most important of all, Red River), have a similar comedic chemistry to Matthau and Lemmon’s, meaning they know how to play off of one another. Stumpy is the grumpy character while Wayne is the man who tries to act stern and serious and ends up smiling anyway. The two work miracles with a script that could have easily been just another classic Western shoot-the-bad-guys-crack-a-few-jokes kind of movie. Brennan and Wayne clearly know how to have fun while acting and make the most out of so many glorious scenes, especially the last stand-off. They don’t make them like this anymore.

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5.  MAGGIE CHEUNG / TONY LEUNG  CHIU-WAI          in In The Mood For Love

– This one is a more discrete choice for a top acting duo. Wong Kar-Wai’s love story is a complex study of physiological pain and loneliness which follows two characters, Mrs. Chan and Chow Mo-wan, as they discover that their respective partners are cheating on them.  This unconventional love story turns into a game of chess, because as they dive into their loneliness, both characters get closer to each other. The two leads  have the task to deliver an emotional impact on the viewer while trying to keep up with the director’s experimental instructions. Wong Kar-Wai is one of the finest, ‘weirdest’ directors out there and his filmmaking style focuses much more on the directing part of the job than the part that consists of instructing the actors on what to do.  The two leads have to invent themselves and then again, re-invent themselves as the plot shifts and ends in a very gentle, subtle and elegant manner. A movie so perfectly crafted and yet so powerful can only be achieved with two great performances by actors that know what to do and when.

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