Ermanno Olmi started as an industrial filmmaker before launching his career in feature films, and he has always continued to use the raw materials of documentary film production: non-professional actors and the natural settings and environment of the everyday world. As a consequence, his work has often been viewed in the light of Italian Neorealism, even though it was always going to be difficult to confine Neorealism’s early adherents within its somewhat problematic conceptual boundaries. In fact by the time Olmi came onto the scene in the late 1950s, Neorealism’s patriarchs, such as Roberto Rosellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio de Sica, had moved off in very different directions, and the “movement” had lost its steam. But it was to be revived with Olmi’s second feature, Il Posto, (The Job, aka The Sound of the Trumpets, 1961), which seemed to breathe new life into the Neorealistic attitude (and it is sustained today by the work of some Iranian filmmakers, notably Jafar Panahi). (Note: for further discussion on Italian Neorealism, see "Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: Open City and Paisan" and "Subjective Realism in the Italian Film".)
But Olmi’s Il Posto is much more than just a Neorealist film. Like de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), Olmi’s Il Posto transcends the dimensions of Neorealism and stands as one of the great and universal films of any era. Indeed, it is fitting, then, that Olmi cites de Sica as an important influence on his work. There are several factors that contribute to the virtues of Il Posto – the cinematic craftsmanship, the affecting and natural acting, and the compelling narrative, itself, which is not just about particular people at a particular time, but about the very nature of modern life.
The story of the film is set in postwar Milan, but it concerns the disruptive changes that were altering life all over the world after the war. The war itself, of course, was cataclysmic and disruptive, but with peacetime, large-scale capitalism was spreading around the globe and leading to vast changes in the way people live and socialise. We are still living in the middle of this disruptive evolutionary cultural process of “globalization”, which is a new term for something that got into full gear after the end of the Second World War. Our culture and our attitudes are still catching up to the impact and consequences that global capitalisation (perhaps more effectively termed “Predatory Capitalism” – see the current work of economist James K. Galbraith) is engendering. There are four main narrative sections to the story, none of which fully come to closure and leave the viewer at the end with a thoughtful feeling of openness and missed opportunities.
The first section, of about 34 minute, depicts the hopes and uncertainties of Domenico, a 19-year-old boy from a working-class family who has left “middle school” and is looking for his first job. He takes the train to the big city, Milan, hoping to get an office job at a large company, which if he gets it, his family assures him, will provide him secure employment “for life”. But Domenico, like all young boys, is not really prepared for the workaday world of employment, and doesn’t really know what to expect. He is sensitive and watchful, trying to make a good impression, without know what he really wants – or even what he should want.
When he arrives at the company, he and a large number of other applicants are asked to take various aptitude and personality tests which will be used to determine who gets a job offer. During the lunch break, Domenico meets a pretty young fellow applicant, Atonietta, and they strike up a friendly conversation. Clearly Domenico is very attracted to the lovely girl, but he is naturally shy – a trait that seems to appeal to the girl. Since they have some time before they must return, they go window-shopping in the city.. On the way back to the office, they realise that they are late, and they start to run through the streets to get back on time. Domenico takes Antonietta’s hand to help her steer through the chaotic traffic, and soon their hand-holding is delicately portrayed for what it is – an affectionate gesture between the tentative youngsters in search of romance.
After they complete the rest of the “application” day at the company, Domenico meets Antonietta again, and he walks her to her bus stop, and their beautiful tryst ends. The day of uncertainty has ended full of excitement and high hopes.
2. Introduction to the Work World.
Soon it is clear that Domenico has been offered a job by the company. He is outfitted with a new coat and sent off to the train to report for his first day. Not long after he arrives, he happily learns that Antonietta has been offered a job, too. But Domenico is assigned to work in a building different from Antonietta’s, as an assistant office messenger until a desk job opens up. It is soon clear that there is almost nothing for the two office messengers in that building to do, so they just sit at their desks in the corridor outside an office room, whiling away the time. Even when they are assigned to deliver a message, his senior partner, Sartori, advises him cynically not to hurry – make them wait. This section lasts about 18 minutes and shows the intimidating and confusing nature of his new company and position.
3. Isolated, Meaningless Work.
This third section depicts life inside the office room close to Domenico’s desk. There are two rows – four desks in a row – with individuals apparently doing utterly boring, meaningless paperwork. All of these office workers are introduced: the poorly-sighted “Sleepyhead”, the loud worker, the cigarette smoker, the quiet matron, the mother of some grown-up boys, etc. This is then followed by a series of dissolves that move from one vignette to another depicting the squalid circumstances of these people in their private lives. They are all isolated and essentially lonely, cut off from the kind of genuine companionship and interaction that we would find worthwhile. When we cut back to Sartori and Domenico (the next day?), they observe a former office worker who has been retired for three months, but who comes to the office every day and sits in a chair, doing nothing. The man apparently has nothing else to do.
After work, Domenico waits in the rain for Antonietta, but he sees her leave in the company with a number of people, including a well-dressed young man who is holding an umbrella for her. So Domenico watches them depart in silence.
4. Empty Socialising.
Domenico finally runs into Antonietta one day at work, and she asks him to come to the company New Year’s Eve Dance. Domenico does manage to come and finds himself in a large lineoleum-floored room full of tables in front of a bandstand. The room gradually fills with company workers, but Antonietta never shows up. Instead, we watch people engaging in artificial and empty socialising, with little motivation other than to become inebriated. They do become convivial, but it seems garish and forced. These are people that are to be Domenico’s comrades “for life”.
The next day at the office, the office workers are shown standing mournfully around Sleepyhead’s desk. He has passed away, and now Domenico has been assigned his desk. The film ends with Domenico having joined the ranks of the “desks in a row” group, sitting in the rear and commencing his task of boring, meaningless paperwork.
What makes Il Posto poignant is the way it shows how the sincere and innocent Domenico is led relentlessly into the depressing jaws of mind-numbing corporate mechanics. He, too, seems to be doomed to a life of empty, seemingly pointless activity, with little opportunity for meaningful interaction or engagement. Domenico and Antonietta never make the real connection, and presumably that romantic opportunity is lost. Domenico is overwhelmed by the sheer inertia of implacable company minutia. And yet, the entire narrative is presented with a certain good-natured resignation. It is this irony which makes the film stand out. Domenico is like us. He tries to make his way as best he can, and to a certain extent he succeeds. But the rattling noise of the mimeograph machine which grows louder and louder at the close of the film reminds us of what Domenico must feel: there has to be something more than this.
The acting in the film is exceptional throughout. Most of the actors never appeared in any other films. The story probably reflects some of Olmi’s experiences when he worked as an office worker. But on that occasion, at least, he didn’t let his opportunities pass away -- he married actress Loredana Detto, who plays the beautiful Antonietta.
The camera work is also outstanding. Olmi essentially shoots the films he makes, himself, which distinguishes him from other filmmakers. He sees himself more as a craftsman than as an intellectual. It was interesting to me that in an interview, Olmi mentioned that, by contrast, Fellini, whose visual sensibility I admire, never, ever looks through the viewfinder of the camera. One fine example, of fluid, but unobtrusive, camerawork is a 75-second tracking shot in the first section, showing Domenico and Antonietta walking together after their testing day. It is beautifully and delicately shot, as the two of them seem not to know what to do with their hands, after their hand-holding experience earlier in the day. The scenes of the office and of the industrial construction site capture, in a natural way, a mood of relentless and overwhelming mechanics. What is particularly adroit is the way Olmi manages the tempo of the scenes in just the right way, with various extended pauses, cutaways, and point-of-view shots showing Domenico’s reactions to the bewildering world of corporate life.
All told, the four sequences of Il Posto, with their sense of openness and of expectation, leave us with a sense of questioning. It is the same look of questioning that we saw, and understood, on the face of James Dean in some of his films. Even though we cannot articulate it, there is something that we, too, felt with Domenico when he was with Antonietta – something we must not lose track of, something important, something beautiful out there.