Friday, March 16, 2012

Il posto (1961) - #194

- My father says these big companies don't pay much, but you have a secure job for life. 

- Can you smell the coffee?

Just as a hiker trekking across a rugged and imposing landscape of jagged peaks and soaring vistas sometimes finds gratification at unexpectedly stumbling into a calm and fragrant meadow, so Il Posto offered a pleasant respite from some of my arduous but rewarding cinematic labors of recent weeks. Following the rigors of Bunuel's Viridiana, Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, Godard's (even at his most playful) A Woman is a Woman, here on this blog, and hefty themes in films like Basil Dearden's Victim and Chantal Akerman's Les Rendez-vous d'Anna over on my other writing gig at Criterion Cast, a film as genial, modest and winsomely accessible as Il Posto could not be more refreshing or lighter on the palate. It's one of the relatively few Criterion films that I had practically no idea what to expect going into it, though it was easy enough to surmise from the packaging that it had to do with a young Italian man (a boy, really) landing his first "real" job. Fine, a well-crafted, fondly remembered slice of late Neorealism, I figured, a relatively minor work most likely, but hey, it's next on my timeline, I'll give it a chance. Knowing nothing about director Ermanno Olmi nor lead actor Sandro Panseri, with the DVD's release occurring way back in 2003 and practically no recent chatter or buzz related to it on any of the film-related websites as far as I am aware, Il Posto completely snuck up on me right at a moment I was fully primed to appreciate it on its own terms.

The plot is as simple and unassuming as I could have guessed, if I'd been pushed to sketch out a prediction of what would happen. A kid just coming of age, presumably from a struggling (but not abjectly poor) family, is eager to make his way out of the uptight provincial village he was born into and land on his feet in one of Italy's big cities. Kind of an update on I Vitteloni from a little less than a decade earlier, but probably lacking Fellini's bacchanalian flair, which was just beginning to emerge in that earlier film. The kid gets a job, there's a spark of romance to charm the viewers, and he winds up learning that life in the rat race ain't all it's cracked up to be, lessons that the vast majority of the audience already know but enjoy being remind of when presented humorously.  So I would have surmised and as it turned out, I wasn't so far off. But as comforting as it often is to have one's hopeful expectations validated by a quality effort, the areas where Il Posto veered away from my presumptions turn out to be some of the more fascinating and enjoyable aspects of my experience watching it over these past few nights.

Sure enough, Domenico, the wide-eyed naif depicted on Il Posto's promotional art, is the eldest son of a hard-pressed working class family living in Meda, a run-down suburb of Milan just on the verge of falling into decrepitude. But the first impression I got of him was that he'd be perfectly comfortable just hanging out at home and letting someone else take the "chance of a lifetime" (literally) that awaits him at the end of the train line he takes into the heart of the bustling and rebuilding Italian metropolis. Getting a desk job at a big corporation isn't apparently high on Domenico's list of priorities, but for lack of any counter-argument to pressures put on him by his parents, he embarks on his mission. The point is subtly made (like most other points in this film) but all the more poignant because of it, that Domenico is being put to work for the sake of his younger brother Franco, who can only continue in formal education with the assistance of his additional income. Domenico has, in fact, drawn the short end of the stick when it comes to parental support, presumably because the parents see more potential in Franco than they do in their introverted, insecure firstborn.

So even though Domenico is being sent off to work in the epicenter of Italian industry and commerce, he doesn't exude much enthusiasm at the prospect, that is, until he makes casual acquaintance with Antonietta, or Magali as she's more exotically nicknamed. They're both among the dozens of applicants - some just as fresh-faced, others a bit more weary and downtrodden after being cast off by untold numbers of previous employers - who show up that first morning to go through a battery of absurdly nonsensical aptitude tests and psychological interviews, all easily mastered and seemingly only good for filtering out the most inept or fraudulent candidates.

The mind-numbing trivialities of life in the unnamed corporation (I'm not sure we're ever told what kind of product or service the company actually delivers) serve as a prototype not merely for what goes on in the Italian workplace but what workers all over the modern world experienced then and still do now - with the pace and productivity expectations only increasing along with the obvious transitions from analog to digital technologies introduced over the past fifty years. The numerous anachronisms of office back life then as compared to now supply much of the good natured humor that gives Il Posto so much charm. Anyone who's spent significant time working in a cubicle culture will laugh but also wince in recognition of the petty diversions that the office drones resort to as they while away the hours... and the years.

But back to Domenico and Magali, whose low-key flirtations are depicted by Olmi with a discrete sensitivity that I greatly appreciated for his willingness to stay inconclusive and thus very realistic and unexpected. Their bumbling chatter during a lunch break that starts with window-shopping and culminates in a wistful hand-holding dash through a downtown park, serves as Il Posto's romantic peak moment, but it's effectively executed and memorable for its sweet brevity.

Domenico's shyness and vulnerability pique Magali's interest, though she seems less blind-sided by the stirrings of attraction than her would-be boyfriend. She just thinks he's kind of cute, that's all, and probably enjoys watching his exertions to impress - it's clear enough that Domenico is smitten but not quite capable of seizing his moment. The two actors were both non-professionals who didn't go on to do much else in the film industry (though Olmi tells a wonderful anecdote about his female lead, Loredana Detto, that serves as the punchline to his interview supplement on this disc, so I won't spoil it here.) But as it turns out, they were perfectly cast. Panseri in particular deserves a huge share of the credit for Il Posto's initial and lasting success. His large expressive eyes and bemused facial control in a nearly continuous stream of reaction shots that constitute his performance elevate us to see, through those eyes, the essential strangeness of what would otherwise seem like rather mundane scenes from everyday proletarian life. Often the effect is quite hilarious, such as the culminating New Year's Eve party, a corporate sponsored mixer that starts off with Domenico arriving unfashionably early and awkwardly unsure of what to do with himself, using long slow silence and tentative scoping out of the situation in a manner reminiscent of Jacques Tati:

Clearly Domenico has only one motivation that propels him to enter into such an otherwise uncomfortable zone of sometimes drab, sometimes ghoulish adults, and that's to see Magali (check out that fancy bouquet.) Though his quest leads to disappointment on that end, it's part of the crucial assimilation process that all those grown-ups surrounding him had to go through in order to find their niche in this creepy but economically necessary  subculture of Western industrial capitalism. Olmi perfectly captures the young man's initial reluctance to join in on the weirdness, until the pressures of a well-intended older woman gets his back off the wall and his butt out of his chair so he can join in the crazy conga line to nowhere - maybe a slight touch of Fellini influence wriggling itself into the scenario after all...

In shooting his second feature film, Olmi speaks deeply from his own experience. He filmed Il Posto as a genuine labor of love, hardly expecting anything near the acclaim the film soon won him. Working with a tiny crew and budget, on weekends in the actual office space of the corporation that employed him through the preceding decade, he had just over the past few years taught himself how to shoot film and used his abilities to create industrial documentary footage for the company. Along with all the genial levity and soft humanistic satire, he injects some weightier ruminations that don't quite rise to the level of subversive indictment, much less overt rebellion against the prevailing social order. However, Il Posto still lays down an unsettling critique, a note of warning to all who have not yet crossed that point of entry into the all-devouring vortex of corporate serfdom. That rock of stability, that "job for life" may well indeed pay the bills and provide a solid base of material comfort, but there's a high price to be paid in service to the machine. This clip, the concluding scene of the film, may not make quite as much sense without subtitles or seeing the preceding 90 minutes... but then again, the look in Domenico's eyes as the mimeograph grinds away on the soundtrack says it very clearly, no words necessary to get that point across.


David said...

Finally a film I have seen.I love Olmi's simple and straightforward style,it's kind of like Neo-Realism but not exact the same.I have also watched another Criterion title,which is completely different from this one in terms of the story-telling.His Cannes winning picture Tree of Wooden Clog is more like this one,but it's too long and sometimes tedious for me.

I'm pretty impressed by the scenes in the office,as a white collar myself,the boredom of office life is exactly what I go through every day,sadly.

Did you watch the short film in the dvd,that one is very cute and funny,I did not expect him to make that kind of film.

David Blakeslee said...

I see Olmi's style as a rejuvenation (though maybe a last gasp) of Neorealism, injecting a touch of warmth and wistful sentimentality, even a hint of nostalgia as we see life through the eyes of the young man just entering the workforce. Il Posto is probably best enjoyed by people who've lived their own version of office drudgery, as we both have. I don't occupy a cubicle or sit in rows but I do have spend a lot of time at a desk looking at a computer monitor from 9 - 5 each day. Ehh, could be worse! At least I get to circulate, teach classes, interact with people frequently in various settings in the course of a week! In this film, Olmi is trying to shake up us white collar types to break free of that grip while there's still time.

This is the only Olmi title I've seen yet, but I Fidinzati will be up for its turn soon enough. I did watch La Cotta, the hour-long movie he made for TV in 1967. Thanks for mentioning it! It's very deserving of attention, an entertaining, ruminative teen romance (not sex) comedy that seemed like a hybrid of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson in adolescence (and Italian, of course.) The little flights of imagination are right on target for an intelligent teenage boy whose emotional yearnings exceed his grasp. I could relate! :) What was it about the film that surprised you? I found it quite in keeping with the spirit of Il Posto, even though La Cotta's protagonist was a lot more talkative!

David said...

The thing surprised me is the "Fellini Touch" in it,like what he did in Amarcord,about the adolescent day-dreaming.You certainly did not expect this kind of thing appear in a film which was directed by a director who is famous for shooting realism films.

David Blakeslee said...

One of many such shocking admissions I could make: I've never seen Amarcord! :) Though I have seen all the old Fellini up to and including 8 1/2, so I can only trust you on this comparison.

It's worth pointing out that when Olmi made Il Posto, he was a complete unknown, while Fellini was at the zenith of his prestige and influence, between La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 in 1961 (probably filming 8 1/2 as Il Posto debuted.) Olmi must have been influenced to some degree by Fellini and his great artistic and box office success as he made the transition from being a privately employed commercial documentary film maker to a narrative story teller in more popular cinema. Obviously the guy had a more sensitive and poetic soul to him than anyone would have known from just watching his footage of bulldozers, cranes and industrial construction sites!

David said...

Oh,so you are gonna wait until you are gonna write them?

Fellini color films are nothing less great than his B&w ones,I think he is more a dreamer than a realist,I was constantly shocked by the wild imaginations he brought to the screen in his later works.