In the first scene of Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961), protagonist Domenico (Sandro Panseri) lies beneath his bed sheets with his eyes wide open. The lighting suggests it might be just around dawn, yet the working class studio flat he shares with his family is already brimming with life. His mother fixes his father’s lunch, while the latter gets ready for work as they both discuss their son’s upcoming application for a Milan company’s recruitment call, a golden opportunity for social mobility. Domenico’s parents seem unaware that he’s listening, but his passive acceptance makes it feel like everything’s already been determined. Why would he intervene if he really has no say? After all, the place he’s applying to is one of those that “if you get in there, you’ve got a job for life”, as stated by his mother. No matter how much he frowns at his younger brother, his book strap has already been passed over to him. Why would a working adult need it anyway?
Whether he’s ready or not, consenting or not, Domenico’s new life is already lined up waiting for him, and there really isn’t any time to get around and think about the implications. He walks reluctantly towards the bus stop in his oversized white-collar attire, probably knowing that the next time he takes these same steps, nothing will feel the same.
In a vacuum, this sequence might read counterintuitively as the opening for a film dealing with the transition towards adulthood, as it mostly mirrors what tends to be expected from the grand climactic conclusion of a traditional coming-of age-story. But apart from some superficial common elements, Olmi’s sophomore effort is clearly going for something else. Instead of romanticizing the inherent graciousness of a simpler life, Il Posto focuses on the nuts and bolts of the transition process itself, shining a light on the dry and dehumanizing stroll that follows the usual fade to black.
In this sense, the film portrays as much an intimate retelling of a young man’s hesitant embrace of the status quo, as a wider case study on the impact of utilitarianism on the many lives it promised to improve. This new compass for Western society brushed over the war-torned urban facades of classic Neorealist fables, renewing them as industrial complexes and monolithic bureaucracies. Even if unquestionably indebted to many of the aesthetic nuances that characterized the aforementioned cinematic world-shaking movement of the previous decade, the way that Olmi’s narrative is framed is also notoriously singular in its approach.
As with other Neorealist classics like Rome, Open City (1945) and Umberto D. (1952), Il Posto delves into the obligatory exploration of the laborers’ social milieu. The dust roads that lead towards shared living quarters in the outskirts of Lombardia are detailed by the subtle pans of Lamberto Caimi’s camerawork, the same that later corners Domenico in a cheap café by cloistering the frame with the fold-up newspapers and big-shouldered suits of his new colleagues in the workforce. Nevertheless, these pictoric landmarks exist as more than merely contextual grounding. For Olmi, they’re an extension of Domenico’s perspective, even if only tenuously linked to where Panseri’s wide-eyed visage lies in the shot.
The filmmaker and the protagonist’s stoic observation melds over time, colliding in an intimate and almost voyeuristic point of view of their surroundings as refractions of an uncertain emotional landscape. There’s a certain lushness in how some of the famous Neorealist-adjacent filmmakers constructed their mise-en-scene that is noticeably absent from Olmi. Be it Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini, or even Rossellini, there’s always a graceful aura that elevates their images beyond the merely expressionistic, towards a more abstracted preciousness; a feel for the harmonic and the elegant that transcends their subject at hand. That’s never the case in Il Posto, which is not to say there’s a lack of delicacy in its formal presentation. Bodies inhabit the screen in constant tension with the oppressive architecture around them; yet the focus always lies in the former and their different degrees of discomfort, the perspective always grounded in a palpable feel for humanity.
This leads to the distinctiveness of the film’s setting in itself. By the late ‘50s, Neorealism had somewhat vanished from the spotlight, mainly due to a changing cultural climate in Italy that recontextualized how these depictions of the perils of the proletariat were perceived. The moral anguish that burst from the dreary sceneries of a reconstructed post-WWII Western society had been rapidly replaced by a yearning for prosperity. Examples of economic expansion began to pop all around the globe, and a collective hope for rises in income levels and quality of life diminished the will to dwell in the despairing portraits of many post-war cinephile favorites like Film Noir, British kitchen sink realism and Robert Bresson’s austere humanism.
Like many other cinemas, mainstream Italian films went the optimistic and easy-going route with the now iconic Commedia all’Italiana, but the changing tides also shook up the methods of most celebrated Italian auteurs. The initial premise of social concern that gave birth to Neorealism switched gears towards a different rendering of human frailty. The crowded and rowdy streets of popular Roman quadrants gave way to isolated yachts and luxurious house parties. The naturalistic portent of non-actors was replaced by gorgeous movie stars brooding at the emptiness of their hedonistic excesses. In a new, socially mobile society, concerns transformed from primal urgency to internal alienation, from collective concerns to individual searches. But the working class didn’t just fade away, and separating himself from the new, hot trends explored by his fellow countrymen, Olmi’s Il Posto is a testament to their newfound uncertainty.
Even if timid and introspective like Domenico, characters that inhabit the Italian filmmaker’s world exude vibrancy in the way their inquisitive gazes glow in a middle close-up. There are no ennui-infused soliloquies or oneiric passages, just the “unspectacular” everyday vignettes of ordinary lives dealing with a mechanized society with no intent of slowing down for them. After all, Il Posto depicted a version of the ‘60s rarely present in the collective unconscious. This is prior to civil rights movements, glamorous countercultures and musical manias; a world of capitalist high-efficiency rulings transparent in its aseptic nature and delineated with earnest concern instead of aristocratic detachment. Perhaps it works precisely as that missing link; engulfed by the intense radiance of a lightbulb in his newly appointed desk and drowned by the mechanical drones, Domenico’s final lost gaze seeks to imagine the possibilities of futures to come.