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Ermanno Olmi and Siracusa

The Quarry of Sant’Antonio at Melilli
February 8, 2021
Lisa Barbera
February 12, 2021
Stills © from I Fidanzati

Ermanno Olmi, the Steel City and the Salt-flats of Priolo

If you approach Siracusa from the North, you drive past kilometres of landscape of iron and fire as Vincenzo Consolo writes in his Le pietre di Pantalica. These are the plants of the petrochemical industries at Melilli, Priolo and Augusta, which have profoundly marked the province since the middle of the twentieth century. In 1960, a decade after the initial creation of the industries in the wide coastal plains, the Edison Volta company produced a short film called “The Steel City”, entrusting the direction to a young film-maker from Bergamo, Ermanno Olmi. He produced a film that met the needs of the client; it emphasised the benefits that industrialisation produced on the socio-economic situation of the area affected, and it presented the process as the expression of a new modernity that was grafted onto the cyclic nature of the agricultural world. After completing the film however, Olmi continued to study the effects of that transformation independently, elaborating a project for a film that would be freed from meeting the interests of his industrial patrons.
In 1962, two years after the documentary, Olmi returned to the petrochemical plants of Siracusa with the aim of creating a film “a soggetto”, telling a story that would show the natural and the man-made landscapes through different eyes: the result was “I Fidanzati” - The Fiancés - which was presented at the Film Festival of Cannes in 1963. It tells the story of Giovanni, a worker from the north, who willingly accepts being transferred to Sicily because he will earn more there. He has to live with being far from his sick father and his fiancée Liliana who tries in vain to dissuade him from going, because she worries that their relationship will suffer definitively, but Giovanni has no intention of passing over this opportunity and he isn’t even very sorry to get away from a relationship of which perhaps he is already bored. He finds himself catapulted into a completely new environment, where he watches the transformation under way. The distance and the unease will lead him to reconsider his relationship with Liliana and reinforce their feelings for each other.
Beyond the romantic story that frames the narrative, the real subject of the film, the one that occupies centre stage, is the change provoked by rapid industrialisation; the traumatic, rushed shift from an agricultural community to a system of industrial production. The film is interesting because it chooses to show this change through the ‘foreign’ eyes of a character, the protagonist GIovanni, who isn’t from the setting which is portrayed.
So what does Giovanni see? To begin with he only sees the macroscopic distance that exists between the ‘industrial mindset’ and the world of the countryside, eternally affected by the cycles of nature. There are various scenes, some almost comic, which underline the basic incapacity of the people of the south to fall into line with the rules and rhythms imposed by industrial production; in one scene, a young lady who has just started work, arrives on site accompanied by the whole family dressed for a party, as if they were going to a dance or a wedding; or another where the workers from the north laugh about their southern colleagues who don’t show up for work when it rains, because work (in the fields) was always suspended during the rain. From this point of view, industrial culture is seen as the only means of approaching modern life.
Within this narrative ‘monologue’ however, we find a shift that gives new meaning to the representation of reality as shown in the film. There are just 18 frames which are marked by the slow movement of the camera. In these brief visual episodes, the soundtrack consists solely of analogical noises, like the sound of water that moves the wheels of a water-mill, while the screen alternates distant shots with close-ups. There are no words during the entire sequence except for Giovanni’s ”buongiorno”, which is ignored. Where is Giovanni? He’s walking on the beach of Fondaco Nuovo and comes across the salt-flats of Priolo, where the ‘salinari’ are hard at work, harvesting sea-salt.
What he sees is another world, distant, with a different pace, a different order, a world of expert gestures, of fatigue and of dignity, of organisation and technical know-how, which tells of something other than what has been seen so far. It’s as if the history of that land, so foreign to him, has briefly found its voice again to say that the culture of work, although different from the culture created by the industrial world, has deep roots in the land and in time. In this brief visual sequence, the film takes on an anthropological meaning, and shows what Olmi had had to be silent about in “The Steel City”, and what pressed him to return to the subject later in order to give voice to that hidden world.
So the eye of the camera affects the spectator, provoking a shift of gaze through the power of the images. Through Giovanni’s eyes we see things in a new light. That ‘human landscape’ renders an image that clears the encrusted mind and gives life to a new dimension of meaning that places old and new side by side without a preconceived hierarchy of values. Having built up a ‘monologue’, Olmi allows another story to burst into his narrative, one that undermines the sense of what has already been said, and which opens up a dialogue which involves the spectator and forces him to think about interpretation.
That’s why this film - which also shows us the city of Siracusa that no longer exists; piazza della Vittoria before the archeological excavations; piazza Euripide with the little church of the Madonnina and the railway line which used to cut the city in two - makes us reflect on our past, think about our present and ask ourselves about the future. That a film makes us do this is not insignificant: but then this is really what works of cultural importance, created out of necessity, should do.
Gennaio 2021

Insegna Lettere al Liceo “Quintiliano” di Siracusa. Ha pubblicato il saggio Siracusa, si gira! per Emanuele Romeo Editore sui film girati nel territorio aretuseo dal secondo dopoguerra al 2000 e la Movie map Sicilia, una guida ai set cinematografici dell’Isola. Si è occupato di linguaggio cinematografico nella pratica didattica. È stato assessore ai Servizi culturali del Comune di Siracusa dal 1994 al 1998.