One of the most unusual features of Italian cinema of the late ’50s and ’60s is the way that it affords us multiple perspectives on the same event, namely the economic boom following the postwar recovery. Where the directors of the French New Wave each created his or her own unique poetic universe, Italian cinema of the same period feels like a series of moons circling around one planet. Again and again, one encounters the same sociological material, filtered through Michelangelo Antonioni’s elegant precision, Luchino Visconti’s luxurious emotionalism, Dino Risi’s exuberance, or Valerio Zurlini’s sobriety. Again and again, one sees the construction sites, the quick-stop cafes, and the cramped apartments owned by nosy landladies that were constants of postwar Italian society. Most strikingly of all, these movies feature a parade of young men fitted outfitted in regulation white-collar attire, betraying their essential inexperience. They are ill equipped for a life of work and responsibility in a mechanized, high-efficiency world, and lonesome for the nurturing comforts of home.
Of all the great filmmakers who visited this terrain, none responded more soulfully than Ermanno Olmi, whose second feature, the 1961 Il Posto, ushered something new into world cinema: a sense of intimacy between director and characters that surpassed anything in the neorealist canon. In the intervening years, Il Posto has had a profound effect on directors as diverse as Wu Nien-jen, Abbas Kiarostami, and Martin Scorsese (there is more than one visual quote from Olmi’s movie in Raging Bull). If it has not achieved the same legendary status as L’Avventura, Rocco and His Brothers, or La Dolce Vita, it’s probably because of, rather than in spite of, its intimacy. Olmi has almost always filmed people on the lower end of the economic ladder, leading unspectacular lives, and he treats the details of these lives with the care that a Quattrocento master would have lavished on an episode in the life of Christ. Consequently, his great films (Il Posto, I Fidanzati, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, the first half of Genesis) lack the romantic or aesthetic luster of the aforementioned classics. Moreover, they also appear to lack the kind of charismatic sweep we’ve come to associate with grand artistic visions: in the work of an Antonioni, a Visconti, a Federico Fellini, the artist’s sensibility acts as a kind of umbrella over the characters and the action. By contrast, Olmi, like Robert Bresson, works on a smaller canvas, and his passionate humanism informs his art. Olmi’s films feel like one-to-one exchanges with real people—you have the impression that he is walking hand in hand with each of his characters. “The sensation is that these choices of mine are not only mine but that others have them too,” Olmi once told Ellen Oumano. “I really don’t feel exclusive...My ambition instead, perhaps because of my peasant-worker background, is to look at the world with others, not as an aristocratic intellectual.”
To say that Olmi identifies with Domenico, the young hero of Il Posto on the verge of a “job for life,” is to put it mildly. The pull of his narrative is fitted to Domenico’s inner turmoil, his curiosity and his romantic longing, like two pieces of wood joined by an expert carpenter. Even the lovely section in which the story veers off course to examine the private lives of Domenico’s future office mates (there are oddly similar tangents in Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us and Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders, made around the same time) feels like an illumination of Domenico’s own perceptions: these hushed vignettes represent the lay of the adult land, as well as a set of possible futures. And Olmi’s mise-en-scène is just as finely tuned to Domenico’s wavelength—Il Posto’s black-and-white cinematography is as gorgeous as anything in 8 1/2 or L’Avventura, but where Fellini and Antonioni harmonize shapes, shadows, and graceful movements into an abstract whole, Olmi is devoted to simply defining his characters in space, giving Domenico and his coworkers a lovely sense of line and volume; and his delicately attentive soundtracks are as carefully built as Bresson’s but less rhythmic and percussive, the many stretches of quiet prompting a meditative state shared by director, protagonist, and audience.
Il Posto is probably Olmi’s most autobiographical film. Like Domenico, he clerked in a Milanese company for over ten years. Gavin Millar, in his perceptive entry on the director in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, surmises that Olmi must have been making his first documentaries for Edisonvolta during the same period, and this accounts for an interesting subtext in Il Posto, something unique to the tone and feel of this one among all Olmi’s films. Most of Olmi is work-oriented in one way or another (The Legend of the Holy Drinker being a notable and touching exception). All of his films are “documentary-based,” in the sense that the narratives are structured around unspectacular dilemmas reflecting ordinary lives. They are all shot in real locations, and almost all of them feature non-actors (some notable exceptions: Rod Steiger as Pope John in Olmi’s one real failure, A Man Called John; Padre Padrone’s Omero Antonutti as Noah in Genesis; and an unexpectedly moving Rutger Hauer in the aforementioned Holy Drinker, which is also one of the director’s rare literary adaptations). Olmi’s heroes are always poised between a lifelike, human solitude and membership in some kind of community, be it family, village, or office. Similarly, from Time Stood Still onwards, he has consistently focused on elemental situations positioned between “the charm of apprenticeship and the sadness of retirement,” as Millar put it so well, in which everyday concerns are held up against a long view of the not-too-distant future.
What makes Il Posto so singular in Olmi’s oeuvre is the rare intelligence of its hero, played by Sandro Panseri. “The characters of Olmi’s films themselves pay great attention to gestures,” writes Millar, “and seem to rely on other people’s gestures rather than their words as a more trustworthy guide to behavior.” This is never truer than in Il Posto. While Panseri’s Domenico is halting, generally respectful (except to his mother and brother), and shyly recessive (always pausing to gather his courage before he speaks, his sentences generally losing steam and winding down into quiet), he is at all times attentive to whatever is going on around him, stealing glances at everyone and everything, privately sizing up this strange world of work into which he has stepped. There are no grand speeches in which he is allowed to deliver his opinion of his coworkers or his feelings about the nature of existence. But his silent, thoughtful size-ups run throughout the film and imbue it with a sense of quiet uplift. In the end, as Domenico is filling a position created by the recent demise of an accountant, he is delivered into a potentially Kafkaesque future, but one has the sense that his questing temperament will eventually (perhaps ten years later?) lead him in another direction.
Too much of film criticism is devoted to the easily quantifiable: camera angles, plot points, the relative “correctness” of details. Il Posto is a film handcrafted from the most subtly elusive things in life: the precise way Domenico maintains a safely respectful distance and loses a chance to make headway with the beautiful Antonietta (Loredana Detto), whose presence offers a dramatic contrast to the numbing atmosphere of the office; the strange sensation of standing in a room filled with rival job candidates before undergoing the collective indignity of a “psychological test” (administered by Olmi’s close friend and sometime cowriter, critic Tullio Kezich); the awkward feeling of waiting for the dancehall to fill up for a big New Year’s Eve party. And at the heart of this miraculous movie, made up of precious and carefully gathered fragments of experience, is an abiding feeling that for Olmi, everybody is a hero.