Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Il Posto (1961)

A talkie, courtesy TIFF Bell Lightbox.

As a title, ‘Il Posto’ plays lightly against my ear. Not speaking Italian myself, I hear the words first as sounds, and as sounds, they seem upbeat. But the movie’s English title is “The Job,” which seems like something else. My English, a southern Ontario-version that swallows vowels, drops those words with a thud—there’s a lot of ‘aw’ in my ‘job’, followed by a heavy ‘buh.’ The Italian sounds better. However, the English captures Il Posto best.

Director Ermanno Olmi’s 1961 masterpiece is about a serious young man who goes to work for a ridiculous company that doesn’t know it is ridiculous. If Olmi ever tells us what the company does, I have forgotten. What I remember is the plain, shy, floor-studying face of Domenico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri): a boy beginning to flower but pushed, too soon, into the deadening world of the company, with its self-justifying protocols and rows of desks. Domenico is not a labourer, and this is not the 19th Century—the issue is not slavery of the body, but of the mind. He wanted to be a surveyor, he explains to his department head, but with a younger brother still in school, it was decided he should start working. And besides: “My father says these big companies don’t pay much, but you have a secure job for life.” What Domenico really wants is his student’s book-strap, which now belongs to his brother.

Olmi devotes a substantial chunk of Il Posto to the job application process itself—a sensible storytelling choice, because at this company, applying for a job is as complex as joining the army. We begin with Domenico’s trip to company HQ—what will end up being his daily commute—depicted in a serious of longshots, many of them with the sort of deliberate feel more associated with still photographs than movies. Strong contrasts of light and shadow emphasize perceived barriers as well as real ones; lines of streetlamps and the length of a train suggest both expansion and contraction: coming and going perpetually, if one chooses to look at it that way.

The whole process is a howler, because the persons involved take it deadly seriously, and because Olmi’s long takes give the actors ample time to stew in their own juices. The applicants, men and women both, are mostly unimpressive: mousy, overweight, shambling. Many seem years older than Domenico. The standout is a pretty young thing named Antonietta (Loredana Detto); Domenico is in love immediately, and so are we.

Applicants are screened for physical weakness, nearsightedness, deafness, moral rectitude, asexuality and/or homosexuality, and depression; the militaristic procedures made absurd by the pitiful specimens subjected to it. “Does the future seem hopeless to you?” a man in a coat asks Domenico. That’s the whole movie right there. Anyone who answered ‘yes’ would likely be rejected by the company, for it would betray too keen an awareness of what’s coming.

Il Posto deftly balances the farcical and the familiar in these early scenes—enough that the farcical becomes familiar, which may mean it isn’t farce anymore, or alternatively, that the familiar is farcical. The applicants have to write an exam in a drab room, but to get there, they have to pass through another room—an antechamber?—so opulent that it seems worthy of Versailles. There are two ways to read this: either the test carries with it the promise of glory, or glory is merely something these men and women pass by on their way to preordained drudgery. The exam itself is a single, but byzantine question, requiring foreknowledge of a formula. A great shot ensues: the beaming but slightly smug face of the Early Finisher, disrupting everyone else in a million little ways. There’s no better feeling than relaxing in a room filled with tense people. It makes you feel very superior.

Domenico is tense; he’s a worrier. But Antonietta seems effortless, confident in everything she does. At first I thought she wasn’t interested in Domenico, but no; she just walks with him as though they’d been together for years, feeling no need to pay him close attention like some new acquaintance. Antonietta glides through a crowd of people while Domenico stumbles. He follows her lead in things—buys the coat she likes; starts sipping coffee the way she does—not because she demands it, but because her natural authority and beauty inspire him equally.

Domenico and Antonietta don’t work in the same building, but Domenico negotiates their break-times as best he can. (I did the same thing at an office job I once had, making sure I took lunch an hour before the beautiful girl in Accounting did, so I could bring a green tea frappuccino to her desk on my way back). Meanwhile, he bides his time as a messenger, waiting for a desk to become available in a row of desks in a dismal room. He receives his best advice from a senior messenger, a sort of middle-management philosopher who only receives kisses from his wife on payday. He smiles gently when he says these things. This kind of man has the emotional strength to survive such a place.

The desk jockeys are a sorrier bunch: they sit, fiddling away at loose lightbulbs, combing their sideburns, cutting cigarettes precisely in two so each half fits in a narrow case—all logical, doable, defensible tasks, but puny and piddly, just like them. One’s a hopeful writer, but we don’t see much of him. The two old goats in the back row do nothing but bitch, which is probably why they’re still in the back row. Does Domenico aspire to be one of them, or is it simply his fate?

Il Posto ends with a strong and rather brutal scene I won’t reveal, except to say that it takes the concept of ‘job for life’ to its logical conclusion and asks more questions than it answers. I think the real ending is the previous scene: the long, simultaneously painful and funny, company New Year’s Eve Party, which Domenico goes to alone. Rule #1 of parties like this: if dateless, never show up on time. Defeated by geography for much of the party, it is only when Domenico hits the bottle that his existential angst is obliterated.

That euphoria will pass, of course. What may never pass is the fear he’ll have, day after day at his new desk, year after year at his job-for-life: that the last time he saw that beautiful girl was the last time he ever will. He needs to keep that fear. If it ever leaves him, the best part of Domenico will be dead.

Where to find Il Posto:
Il Posto is part of Days of Glory, Masterworks of Italian Neorealism, a retrospective running from July 28th to August 28th at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Il Posto screens at 6:30 pm on Friday, August 5th, 2011.

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