La circostanza / The Circumstance (1973)

11 05 2020

It’s been many years since I first fell in love with Ermanno Olmi through his two early features, Il Posto and I fidanzati. Despite this, the rest of his work has escaped me. A copy of his debut Time Stood Still lingered on a hard drive that eventually crashed and when he got his big New York City retrospective at Lincoln Center last year, I couldn’t find the time. This seems indicative of his standing in the history of world cinema. He has many passionate disciples, but the arc of his career seems to fall through the cracks. He came into his own in the 1960s, and yet no description of his career is missing a reference to neorealism. I can see the connection in a film like Il Posto, but by 1973, the much-studied film movement had come and gone. It is wise to strip the filmmaker from the association, then. The Circumstance is tender, opaque, and disorienting. It’s about as far away from neorealism as possible.

Laura is a successful lawyer and the head of the family. She is precise and controlling, while her husband, not quite a pushover, is decidedly passive. She has three children, Beppe, Silvia, and Tommaso. Beppe has rejected the life of luxury that the family’s wealth has afforded the rest of them. He lives on the family farm with his pregnant wife, Anna. Silvia, on the other hand, seems to be mesmerized and frustrated by the trance of young love. Tommaso frustrates Laura because he prioritizes a bizarre interest in robots over his studies. Laura’s razor’s edge approach to life is interrupted when she witnesses a motorcycle accident and she grows increasingly attached to the handsome victim.

Olmi had already shown his intense elliptical slant in I fidanzati. In that film, the scale is smaller, and the focus is more precise. There, we have two lovers and we immediately understand the limited narrative detail: they are engaged but spatially separated. Because of this, Olmi’s artistry is less muddled. The narrative simplicity pairs perfectly with the aesthetic. Our attention doesn’t need to be given to “events” but instead to the fleeting, bittersweet tone that Olmi expertly crafts in an experience that feels like an extended montage. He’s just as elliptical in The Circumstance, but the issue here is that he’s juggling too many balls. Even though it is similarly plotless, there’s probably too much going on here.

For some, this will render the film slight as it often plays like a character study without any elucidation of the characters. To me, though, Olmi does stumble on the same bittersweet sensation of his earlier films. This is clearest in the sequences involving Silvia and her frustrating “summer of love” which is rendered with compassion, but also depleted of its youthful excitement. She seems apathetic to her would-be lover, and Olmi’s approach is similarly distanced. He brilliantly splices up the order of their romance, revisiting key moments with disorienting repetition. Silvia’s story bears a strong resemblance to an early Eric Rohmer film thrown into a blender with Antonioni’s similarly muted portraits of youth in Blow-up and Zabriskie Point. It’s easily the best part of the movie.

The other characters don’t fair quite as well. Family matriarch Laura’s key fascination with the handsome victim of the motorcycle accident has a fun conflict. Here, she sees purpose in her life. Perhaps the opportunity to scratch the maternal itch that she never had access to with her own children. But also, there’s an undeniable sexual tension in her devotion. With what we’re given, Olmi wisely decides to only hint at either of these routes. Eventually, the victim checks out of the hospital and Laura likely never sees him again. I have no issue with the ambivalence greeting both Laura and Silvia’s stories. In fact, I encourage it, but they’re flanked by the far less compelling exploits of the family’s male members. Tomasso’s presence, in particular, seems so weightless, he could just as easily float away.

The Circumstance is a showcase of Olmi’s mastery, but it lacks the focus of the earlier films. There’s something so specific and perfect about Domenico in Il Posto. That film offers just as few answers as The Circumstance, but its vagueness pivots to personal anxieties. There’s something unmistakably poignant in Domenico facing a future of benign office work. In I fidanzati, the scope expands ever so cautiously to two people. Lost in this film is a pointed critique of a bourgeoise family. As it is, we get a family facing that which can barely qualify as “turmoil.” Silvia’s elliptical romance could be the foundation for a wonderful film, but it only amounts to a small fraction of the film. The other family members are given priority. The slow march of time sweeps away their problems, and their status holds firm. The interruption in their lives is curious, but it is not particularly moving.


Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: