Ermanno Olmi’s first feature, Il Posto (1961), is often misrepresented as being a continuation of the tradition of neorealism. This highly influential postwar film movement, which produced such masterpieces as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), is characterised by stories of ordinary people in ordinary situations, on-location shooting, non-actors and a grounding in a desire to truthfully examine Italian social structures. At first glance, Il Posto seems to fit the bill perfectly: it is the story of Domenico (non-professional actor Sandro Panseri), who, along with many other youth in the towns of Lombardy, must seek work in the big city of Turin. Olmi shows us his protagonist’s humble circumstances at home, and he gives us a sense that Domenico’s story, though individual, is part of a larger story that includes those of many young people caught up in the Italian economic miracle. Domenico is part of a crowd on the packed trains to Turin, and we watch him and many others sweat through the employment process, with Olmi taking the time to diverge from the main narrative to allow us to sympathise with and follow – if only for a few moments – other characters’ ordeals.
While Il Posto offers an overall feeling of how the employment process grinds the individual into the routinisation of corporate life, it never forgets the particular story of Domenico. He notices a young woman, Antonietta (Loredana Detto), also applying to the company, and the two experience Turin together as young suburbanites, both attracted to and bewildered by the busy trattorias, street life and careworn city workers all around them. After they are hired, they are sent to separate divisions and Domenico looks for Antonietta in vain. He is assigned to be a messenger under a cynical, weary superior, and is given a lunchbreak that does not coincide with Antonietta’s. Eventually, he is reassigned to a department of clerks, who have worked for years in a stern hierarchy signified by the position of their desks – Domenico begins at the one furthest back in a dim corner of the office. We begin to learn about the tragicomic lives of the other clerks: one is a failed writer; another, an ageing, lonely woman. Slowly, the film’s theme of the alienation of work emerges in the absurd and sad situations that Domenico encounters.
It is easy to see why critics have seen Il Posto – as a depiction of a generation of new Italian workers, with a focus on the humdrum details of prosaic work – as a new expression of neorealism. Looking more closely, however, we find that Olmi has much more in common with his 1960s contemporaries like Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. These directors are interested in the more middle-class concerns of an Italy recovered from the war; psychological alienation, lack of human connection and urban loneliness are their themes. As much as Olmi presents a keenly observed milieu of the contemporary corporation, he also provides a poignant psychological portrait. His intimate moving camera, and his predominant use of close-ups, brings the audience’s attention to the characters’ inner worlds, and provides a sense of their doubts and disappointments. Olmi captures the ways in which work pulls people away from their hopes and dreams, but also captures the sometimes petty and foolish people they become instead. In some sense, Il Posto offers a mild rebuke to the didactic politics of neorealism.
What lingers most about the film is the faces of the characters as they confront their new realities. Olmi is a master of the telling detail and chance expression, and he finds a world of mystery in the mundane rooms and streets that he shoots: in one scene, for instance, Domenico chances to look up at a strange futurist statue in an office where he is waiting. Elsewhere, the camera finds odd quirks of behaviour, and little idiosyncrasies of dress among the people in the company; Like Jacques Tati, Olmi finds strangeness within the seemingly everyday.
Panseri is perfectly cast as Domenico. His face is innocent, and he appears to be much younger than his actual age – he gives the impression of a melancholy schoolboy who has lost his parents in a crowd. Beyond work, Olmi captures something universal about young adulthood, of childhood ending and being rudely tossed into the world. By alternating the stories of the older and younger workers at the firm, Olmi suggests that one never really loses that sense of loss no matter how grey one becomes. I do not wish to spoil it here, but the concluding sequence of the film at a workers’ Christmas party is one of the most sublime scenes in all of cinema.
Il Posto is a stunningly mature and accomplished first film, and one that, since my first viewing many years ago, has stayed with me vividly.
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Il Posto (1961 Italy 93 mins)
Prod Co: 24 Horses, Titanus Prod: Alberto Soffientini Dir: Ermanno Olmi Scr: Ettore Lombardo, Ermanno Olmi Phot: Lamberto Caimi Ed: Carla Colombo Prod Des: Ettore Lombardi Mus: Pier Emilio Bassi
Cast: Sandro Panseri, Loredana Detto, Tullio Kezich