In Ermanno Olmi’s 1961 film, Il Posto, an Italian writer toils away in the evening hours, the shining light of his routine existence before him. Only Chapter 19 of his story won’t be completed. Suddenly passing away, the man’s papers become neatly filed away with those from his corporate job.
For my new column, “Capitolo 20”, the title refers to a chapter yet to be composed while representing a creative reawakening, with the primary objective being to look deeper into Italian cinema (and to connect further with my own Italian family history and past studies). And so, Il Posto (The Job) feels like a natural place to start, as the unfinished work of the would-be novelist touches on a reality that we all face in our day-to-day lives. How do we get from Chapter 19 to Chapter 20?
Like the neorealist films of the late 40s, Il Posto presents a bleak narrative while pinpointing the small joys and transformative moments that can make life a little bit easier to handle. Based primarily in the northern Italian city of Milan, Olmi tells a personal story (he once worked at an electric company in Lombardy), revolving around young Domenico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri), a slightly apprehensive teenager hoping to land a corporate job – potentially for life – in order to support his family in nearby Meda.
With the opening sequence of Il Posto, Olmi imparts the suspicion of unprivileged youth. Domenico lies awake in bed, head turned away from a parental conversation, and he listens. The inquisitive camera of Lamberto Caimi explores the physical space of this modest home, presenting the reality of the family. It’s a big day for the Cantonis, and Domenico understands the importance of his impending interview, even if a complete grasp of the future eludes him. And despite the lack of dialogue early on, Olmi hints at the patriarchal system in place, as the mother challenges the youngest son to get his life together and warns of a father’s scorn (“one of these days, he’ll get tired of this”). Processing the information, Domenico provides a mild tongue-lashing to his sibling, but he’s still got a bit of growing up to do himself.
In this first vignette, Olmi establishes the learned disposition of Domenico and the inherent discipline of the household. Interestingly enough, the parents collude throughout the narrative, finding ways to bring joy into their son’s life while maintaining a sense of authority to be respected.
Upon arriving in Milano, Domenico visualizes the towering prospect of adult responsibility looming over him, and within the confines of the character’s new environment, Olmi conveys the long road ahead. As the new arrival will soon discover, the workplace represents more than just a place to earn money, as some employees view the office as their first place of residence. It’s a content reality and repetitive behavior is the constant, as evidenced by a retiree who comes back daily, only to sleep against the wall for a few hours. Work may feel like a prison for some, but for others, it’s everything.
Once Domenico experiences the “rigorous ethnology” of corporate life (as Olmi refers to in the 2003 documentary Reflecting Reality), a feeling of isolation increases through a series of spacious interior visuals. At home, Domenico is a son, unassuming and respectful of his parents, but in the city, Domenico has a new family. And though an administration gig may not be THE job, it’s still a job. The boy curiously surveys the scene, as he too hopes to be in synch with a daily routine.
As a telling example of Domenico’s evolving maturity, he bravely approaches a young woman (Loredana Detto) – both a potential love interest and co-worker – yet director Olmi immediately cuts away from her full response and takes the action to the streets. Domenico watches. The girl waits. Whereas the power structure of corporate life emerges via wide interior shots, there’s an intimate, natural chemistry formed immediately with the two leads. They don’t yet run with a clique, but they’re already fully in synch with each other. Poetry in motion. (From scene to scene, Olmi adopts a symmetrical aesthetic to subtly reinforce character dynamics.) And once Domenico finally asks for the girl’s name, she reveals it to be Magalì, a nickname earned long ago because a neighborhood boy “didn’t like” her real name (Antonietta). She smiles warmly at Domenico, as she recognizes his old-fashioned sensibilities.
From a critical standpoint, Antonietta’s backstory doesn’t receive the same type of attention as Domenico, leaving one to wonder more about her intentions. What does Antonietta want from life? Does she truly appreciate the gentlemanly demeanor of Domenico, or will she break his heart down the line? Olmi seems to provide clues with an early conversation, in which Antonietta reveals a willingness to be controlled by external forces. She gave up her name. She gave up on studying languages. And finally, she quips, “sooner or later, I’ll get married and that will be that.” Of course, there’s surely more to Antonietta as a person, as a woman, and none of her reveals are meant to confuse Domenico, or to lead him down the wrong path… it’s just the truth. She trusts Domenico, and he trusts her.
MI FIDO DI TE / COSA SEI DISPOSTO A PERDERE?
Two years after the release of Il Posto, the film’s leading lady and director exchanged vows for life. And through Olmi’s framing of Detto, it’s not hard to see his initial admiration for the actress. When Antonietta appears, the camera focuses on her fluid movements, and given the visual style utilized in Olmi’s follow-up film, I Fidanzati, it’s clear that he learned a thing or two from Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish director’s framing techniques for his own amour/lead actress, Harriet Andersson. In turn, the filmmakers of La Nouvelle Vague also found inspiration in Bergman’s work, most notably in Summer with Monika (1953), thrilled by the sensuality of Andersson and the cinematic touch of the humanistic director.
In a pre-interview sequence, Antonietta recognizes the admiring gaze of Domenico, and once she subsequently glides to an office window, Olmi doesn’t just provide yet another focused, poignant shot — he brings the monochromatic visual to life. Antonietta looks towards the outside world, and then she looks inside — literally and figuratively — perhaps contemplating a potential partner for life. And Detto soon found one in the man guiding her movements. Reality in fiction.
As Olmi notes in Reflecting Reality, “Neorealism became a trend.” Meaning, Il Posto holds more authenticity than many films of the post-war genre because the main characters of Domenico and Antonietta are played by real people. In other words, you won’t find an Italian star like Anna Magnani in the film. That’s not a critique of directors who enlisted a star or two to drive their on-location films, but a reminder of Il Posto’s originality as a 93-minute piece of filmmaking. And it’s an important concept to remember, especially today, when authenticity requires so much effort for some modern filmmakers. The visuals found within Il Posto may remind of La Nouvelle Vague, and the narrative can easily be connected to Rossellini’s War Trilogy, but Il Posto truly reflects a specific time and place, brought to life entirely by non-professional actors. However, once the relationship of Domenico and Antonietta seems to progress, Olmi breaks away from the primary storyline to present the realities of Domenico’s co-workers. And the 10-minute sequence of vignettes comes directly after a question put forward to the young man: “Does the future seem hopeless to you?”
At times, Domenico chuckles at some of the more outlandish questions during the interview process, but he’s not ignorant as to why they’re being asked. But what does he want out of life and this new job? Olmi doesn’t provide many answers, primarily because Domenico simply doesn’t know. In the director’s follow-up film, I Fidanzati, he explores the psyche of two mature adults at a crossroads in their relationship, but here in Il Posto, Domenico remains mostly aloof to the accepted norms that may eventually become part of his routine. Through high-low framing and claustrophobic interiors, Olmi conveys the character’s place in the world, and as time progresses, he too becomes in sync with his new boss, moving in the exact same ways. Work life has already led him astray from the chemistry formed with Antonietta.
Like most easily influenced teenagers, Domenico imitates what he sees, especially when he sees positive results. And when Antonietta gets her first look at him in his new uniform and references a company party, Domenico takes the appropriate action. But as Olmi so insightfully reveals in the final chapter of Il Posto, random moments of youth can leave a lasting impact on a teenager’s confidence, leading one to look elsewhere for more accessible moments of happiness.
HOPES AND FEARS
When I think of Domenico, Antonietta and the production of Il Posto, a couple facts come to mind: Ermanno Olmi ultimately got the girl, and Sandro Panseri works in a supermarket somewhere (at least according to Olmi in Reflecting Reality). And that’s perfectly fine. In fact, Detto never appeared in another feature film. Not one. But, I wonder if Panseri — the teenager turned actor — also wanted the girl at some point? Or was he as apprehensive as the character he portrayed? As a lasting cinematic legacy, Panseri and Detto capture that awkward state of adolescent-young adult limbo in Il Posto, that feeling of knowing that everything is changing, and quickly, but not understanding what exactly to do.
It’s also crucial to consider the geographical focus of Il Posto, especially given the narrative of Olmi’s next social study. In I Fidanzati, a northerner from Milan leaves his fiancée for a job in the south (Sicily), and the more relaxed way of life presents a few problems (I’ll be covering I Fidanzati with my next entry). What’s the alternative for Domenico in the north? And what if the job didn’t work out as expected? What’s the breaking point for a seemingly reasonable kid like him?
In Zadie Smith’s “10 Rules of Writing”, the author/essayist offers up a moving piece of advice: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” For the elder characters of Il Posto, they do accept their realities, as do some of the young adults. However, in regard to the aforementioned writer — the “toady” of the office — he’s not satisfied with a mundane 9 to 5 existence or social routines. Maybe he doesn’t have any family left. Maybe writing allows him to feel something. But as he peers out of a window and witnesses the shared moments of joy on the street, he seems to realize something: there’s another job to complete. But at what cost?
Has this writer resigned himself to a lifelong sadness? I don’t know, and in Il Posto, Olmi doesn’t reveal the specifics of his writer’s death, but, sadly, Capitolo 20 went unwritten.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the founder/editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.