Il Posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961)

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If the appeal of the ‘job for life’ still exists for some today, it is easy to imagine its attraction for the generation that came of age in Italy in the chaotic aftermath of World War Two, the years that spawned neorealist cinema. The concept haunts Il Posto, the much repeated goal that the parents of shy Domenico have for their son who, it emerges, they have removed from school so that his more extroverted brother can continue his education.

Il Posto is a story of transitions, of a teenager entering adulthood before his time, and the changes that the world he joining is undergoing. An ambivalent take on the Italian economic boom of the 1950s and 60s, and a satire of its attendant work culture, the film is heartfelt, tender, and at times bitterly humorous. Within its modest narrative, abundant pleasures are to be found in the smallest of details.

At the start of the film, Domenico (Sandro Panseri) has to leave the dusty Milanese suburb of Meda to test for a clerical job at an unnamed company in the city. Walking towards the station with his brother, a horse drawn cart is ahead of them. As Domenico walks on, his brother jumps onto the cart. A vehicle carrying mechanized farming equipment enters the frame behind them. As it passes the cart, Franco jumps from one to the other. Olmi reveals how the world is changing, and that the more confident Franco may be better equipped to traverse the changes than his brother. Standing on the station platform Domenico shyly watches through a window as a group of students enter the station. Shattered dreams and loneliness established in a few seconds.

Arriving at a modern glass-fronted building, Domenico is sent to a waiting room where he is amongst the youngest of a large number of job applicants taking a series of ridiculous tests, ironically claimed to “reveal your individual qualities”. They are given an hour to solve a simple math problem, a physical, and finally an all important aptitude test. Domenico is asked a series of questions, obviously designed to weed out potential troublemakers, he responds seriously when asks if he has fears for the future, struggles to maintain his composure when asked if he is repulsed by the opposite sex, and with a deadpan expression replies ‘sometimes’ when asked if he ever drinks to forget his troubles.

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In a crowded cafe on his lunch break, Domenico meets a fellow applicant, the pretty Antonietta (Loredana Detto). They spend the time walking the streets together, joining the window shoppers in admiring the consumer goods on display. As they walk, the couple talk about their aspirations. Antonietta, more mature, has a clear idea of what she should be paid and where her future lies. Domenico repeats the refrain that he has heard from his parents, the benefits of the secure, if low paid, job for life. As seen previously at the train station, the camera observes Domenico and Antonietta through glass windows, emphasizing their desires and creating a symbolic barrier to achieving them. The result is that when they make the decision to go from looking into a coffee shop to actually entering it, the banal is turned into something quietly significant. The scene inside is beautifully observed, Domenico, standing formally while Antonietta sits, clearly relishes the sharing of a teaspoon and follows his companion’s example in handling the cup. Antonietta shows off her experience in pronouncing the coffee ‘slightly bitter’, but like Domenico she needs to take the cue of another customer to know what to do when it is empty. That evening, Domenico accompanies Antonietta to her bus stop. In a moment of silence, his shyness causes him to miss an opportunity to advance his relationship.

That Domenico gets the job is revealed obliquely, but his excitement is now palpable. Antonietta also gets hired. However, after reconnecting briefly they are placed in different buildings. There being no clerical work available, Domenico is given the temporary position of a messenger. Sat at a little table, decorated with postcards from a colleague’s vacations, Domenico is taught the ropes. The department is a lowly but proud one, it’s members determined to get through each day with as little work as possible.

A rare cut away from Domenico presents us with the office that Domenico aspires to. We see the administrators at work, where little useful is being done, and through a further cut, at home in the evening. It is a montage of the bullied, the vain, the selfish, of talents unrewarded and ambitions unachieved. It culminates with a mother discovering that her delinquent son has emptied her wallet. Cut back to her desk, and she dissolves into tears. Elsewhere, an elderly man sits in the corridor everyday. Now retired, he doesn’t know what to do with his days. Domenico’s ‘job for life’ begins to resemble a prison sentence.

If looking through windows defines much of the activity in Milan’s streets, windows in the office are largely absent or out of reach. With Antonietta not only in another building, but also on another lunch shift and finishing work before him, Domenico spends a long time tracking her down. When eventually they meet in a corridor, she suggests that he goes to the company New Years Eve party. Hopefully her mother will let her attend.

Anyone who has experienced awkwardness at an office party will experience a shudder at the tragicomedy of Olmi’s version. But for the drawn curtains that adorn the room, the venue might be the company basement. Full of anticipation, Domenico arrives early and is presented with a Buster Keaton hat and, being alone, a bottle of wine. The latter item attracts him to an older couple, who invite him to join them. Mournful music plays as guests start to stream in, and it becomes clear that Antonietta won’t be one of them. Domenico sits awkwardly. With his romantic dreams dashed, he is cruelly caught between the amorous glances of a man and woman seeking to peal away from their respective spouses. Finally, in spite of himself, spurred on by the wine and his new companions, Domenico dances. From unpromising beginnings, everyone enjoys themselves, the pace of the music building and building until…

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The scene changes abruptly. Back in the office the administrators stand silently as the content of an empty desk is divided into ‘business’ and ‘personal’. A quick cut to a previously seen, but now empty, bedroom confirms our suspicions. Among the effects is a chapter from a manuscript that the man had been writing. ‘Personal’, says the manager dismissively. Domenico finally gets his clerical job, but not before the existing staff have fought over the new seating arrangements. This really is a job that is only left through death, and where progress comes through switching desks, not rising up the ladder. As Domenico sits down to work, his predecessor’s effects are thrown up on of a cabinet. A coworker uses a mimeograph machine. With the camera focusing on Domenico, the volume of clicks get louder and louder. As Domenico looks into the camera, it is clear that a terrible realization has been made. At the moment in which his ‘job for life’ begins, the potential horror of the situation has hit home. A few seconds later, he goes back to his work.

Prior to directing Il Posto, Olmi produced numerous documentary shorts for his employer Edison Volta, and he brings that experience to bear in this film which bears all the hallmarks of neorealism. Key to its success is Olmi’s entirely non-professional cast. Panseri’s Domenico is a deeply sympathetic character, sensitive to others and conveying volumes through his soulful eyes, be they surveying the world around him or turned shyly to the floor. Throughout the film  we see him taking in the world around him, framed to emphasize his slight stature, often invisible to his ‘superiors’. Detto is riveting as Antonietta, wiser, comparatively mature, and who clearly quite likes the young man, if only he’d ask. The two have great chemistry, so much is conveyed without the need for words, and indeed very little of true importance in the film is conveyed through language. The film is full of characters, many on screen for small amounts of time, who are equally well cast and fully defined: the older woman in the cafeteria who wraps up her meat for the good of her dentures, the work shy messenger who shows Domenico the ropes, the woman at the party with an eye for Domenico’s bottle. And it goes on. Il Posto is full of tiny yet rich moments that add up to a beautiful whole.

Following Antonietta’s no show at the party the two may never see each other again. Maybe her mother didn’t give her permission, maybe there is another reason. Olmi doesn’t judge his characters for love failing to bloom. The promise of work pulled the two of them together. The job itself pushed them apart.