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While filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti were leaving behind their neorealist roots in the 1960s, young directors were refreshing the tradition with their own perspectives and passions. Ermanno Olmi was one of the most important and expressive filmmakers of this new wave of post neo-realist cinema and Il Posto (1961), his second feature, announced his arrival.
The story of a young man with "the chance of a lifetime" to land a white collar job with a faceless corporation in Milan, the financial and industrial capital of Italy, casts a dubious eye on this Italian dream of success with a mix of poetic realism, documentary naturalism and social commentary. Sandro Panseri, a non-professional with an open, boyish face and a wide-eyed expression, is the provincial young hero Domenico, the eldest son in a working class family living in a small town on the outskirts of Milan. He's only a commuter train from the city but it's like another world when he arrives; he's nervous and overwhelmed by the bustling urban world and passively going through the motions of the almost surreal testing process before taking his place as an apathetic cog in the impersonal culture.
He also meets a girl (Loredana Detto, another non-professional and the future Signora Olmi) during the process and in a lazy lunch-hour interlude they window shop, have a coffee in a bustling caf and steal shy glances before rushing back, hand in hand, for the afternoon battery of physical tests and aptitude tests. The quietly romantic moments are lovely and hopeful and Olmi draws from these attractive young non-actors an innocence, tentativeness and authenticity that gives the scenes a simple, moving beauty.
Olmi came to feature filmmaking from a documentary and industrial film background and he brings an eye for capturing the beauty of the everyday and showing (rather than explaining) the social culture of this world. He lets us see this world through Domenico's eyes, passively taking in these strange surroundings, impersonal meetings and abstract routines with a slightly askew perspective; it's a bureaucratic world seen as a surreal existence.
"I should like to put across, more and more clearly, the idea that everything -- epic adventure, humor, and a feeling--is contained in the normal human condition," Olmi wrote in 1964. Like many of the young directors in the Nouvelle Vague in France (not to mention the New Wave filmmakers of other countries), Olmi was interested in films about working class people and his portrait is neither sanctimonious nor patronizing. In fact, Il Posto is partially autobiographical: Olmi drew on his own past as a clerk for the Edisonvolta electrical company for the odyssey of Domenico and even uses the Edisonvolta office block as the location for Domenico's new position. It's hardly a flattering tribute to his job or the white collar corporate culture. He presents the workplace as a stifling existence in a maze of anonymous hallways and staircases and claustrophobic offices, where employees dully grind through monotonous tasks and jump to the lunch and quitting time buzzers like bored students waiting to flee the classroom.
In one shabby room, the desks are lined up in two parallel rows with the boss watching from the front, suggesting a small scale version of Billy Wilder's portrait of American corporate anonymity and order in the 1960 film The Apartment. But where Wilder's drones are neat and in lockstep, Olmi's are sleepy and shabby, accountants scribbling through their assignments between distractions, almost like something out of Charles Dickens. This is the future Domenico looks forward to and Olmi paints the anxiety and disappointments, as well as the brief moments of intimacy and communal joy, with a compassion for the people locked into these lives.
Reportedly shot for the equivalent of $15,000, Il Posto (literally "The Job" or "The Position," and originally released in the U.S. under the name The Sound of Trumpets) was almost shot entirely on location. But unlike, say, Antonioni's portraits of the alienated rich in the modern world, Olmi presents the lives of working folks with few opportunities. Their anxieties have as much to do with a living wage and a steady job as with spiritual emptiness, and Olmi holds out for the hope of connection--in love, in community (an initially desultory office holiday party erupts into a joyous blast), and in family --to give life meaning. (In one of the film's most understated moments, father and son walk together to their respective workplaces in the darkness before dawn, the father's smile wordlessly communicating a pride in his son who will not have to scramble for factory work or manual labor like him). "My purpose was to portray the courage it takes to live through the colorless, gray days which are, in anyone's life, the majority," he wrote in a 1964 program note for the American release of Il Posto , "the rare opportunities, too precious to be lost, for finding love; the subtle distinction between acceptance and resignation."
Producer: Alberto Soffientini
Director: Ermanno Olmi
Screenplay: Ettore Lombardo, Ermanno Olmi (writers)
Cinematography: Roberto Barbieri, Lamberto Caimi
Music: Pier Emilio Bassi
Film Editing: Carla Colombo
Cast: Loredana Detto (Antonietta Masetti), Sandro Panseri (Domenico Cantoni), Tullio Kezich (Psychologist, uncredited), Mara Revel (Old Woman, uncredited), Guido Spadea (Portioli, uncredited).
by Sean Axmaker