Il Posto may go down in history as one of the most visually striking and quietly humorous depictions of modern office life, a more soft-spoken but no less satirical predecessor to the likes of "The Office" or Office Space. But in following the steady progress of teenage Domenico (Sandro Panseri) through his application, admittance and orientation into a large bureaucratic company, writer-director Ermanno Olmi's masterpiece unassumingly encompasses the broader social mechanisms that shape an individual's values and desires, from the coveted front desk of the office floor to the fresh-faced girl (Loredana Detto) whose prospects of romance with Domenico are both introduced and achingly stalled by company circumstances. Olmi's modern landscape views of sterile offices and noisy construction sites draw comparison with similar settings by Antonioni, and both directors approach a metaphysical uncertainty over how to live in a world of shifting appearances and values. While Antonioni's scenarios typically arrive at a state of top-level existential confusion, Olmi demonstrates a proletarian concern for the problems of adjusting to the rules of modern life, whether it be taking competency tests, ingratiating older, established colleagues, or enduring the office holiday party from hell.
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The sacredness of life, the dignity of work, and man's search for the highest spiritual values are themes that deeply color his 14 features and later documentaries. It's as impossible to look at Olmi's films without taking his Christianity into account as it would be to rub religion from the work of Krzysztof Zanussi, his Polish contemporary and friend. Note, he's also far from the mystical-supernatural current of films like Breaking the Waves and American Beauty. Olmi has the earthy consciousness of an organic farmer, one who disdains pesticides, plants by the moon, and thanks Providence for an abundant harvest. There is nothing mystical about his brand of callus-handed Christianity, with its love for all creatures great and small and particularly man in all his defects.
- Deborah Young in her appreciation of Olmi for Film Comment
Olmi: "Work is not a damnation for man. It’s a chance to express himself. But work as it is organized by society often becomes a condemnation. It annuls men." Although Olmi is always sympathetic to his working-persons ensemble, he recognizes their complicity in their lives of quiet estrangement. Olmi may be a Marxist, but his protagonists are anything but revolutionaries. In ever-on-strike Europe, they’re not even talking union. Instead, they are oddly grateful for being picked over pools of other applicants.
- Gerald Peary, covering an 2004 screening of Il Posto at the Harvard Film Archive for The Boston Phoenix
Il posto, Olmi’s second film, is the key to all his work because of the way it illustrates a recurring motif in his critique of modernity: how the "place" or position becomes more important than the people who occupy it. Olmi’s sense of detail is evocative: shots are taken as if on the fly, as the young hero (a bumpkin from the outskirts of Milan applying for a job in the big city) surveys his strange environment with clear-eyed reticence.
At this stage in his career, Olmi could be seen as a link from the Italian post-war naturalist traditions of Rossellini and De Sica to the emerging international avant-garde. He has things in common with Cassavetes (cutting that frustrates narrative expectations), Godard (natural lighting, young people, transportation), and Tati (large spaces, the hero’s coping by trying to conform).
- Chris Fujiwara, in his coverage of the Ermanno Olmi retrospective at the MFA for The Boston Phoenix
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.”
- Kent Jones, from his essay for the Criterion DVD
This is a harsh world that Olmi presents rather than judges, perhaps because of his and his protagonist's similar experience. Explicit social critique and politicizing take a back seat to experience. The director finds the poetry in Domenico's surroundings; construction sites are not the desiccated graveyards of Antonioni, but lifelike organisms unto themselves, and the Italian people necessarily co-exist within these industrial surroundings. In Domenico, Olmi finds a character who might transcend the culture's work-for-life norm.
Through Il Posto's rigorous presentation of the steps towards Domenico's final image epiphany that "there must be more than this" Olmi seemingly adheres to a Neorealist structure. It would be wrong to deny that the film's mostly straightforward narrative has elements of that particular artistic movement, but to label it only as such all too effectively obscures Olmi's outstanding achievements... Olmi deviates from singularity in Il Posto: Neorealism bumps heads with surrealism and class critique in a brilliant sequence that digresses from Domenico's story and shows the home lives and habits of his co-workers.
- Keith Uhlich, writing for Culture Cartel
Megan Ratner provides a thorough synopsis of Il Posto in the Bright Lights Film Journal article "Architecture as Social Commentary":
In the preternatural hush of the firm Domenico hopes to join, the lobby staff fall over each other to toady to management, quickly dispensing of an elderly man seeking the office of social services. Domenico traverses the first of many long, empty hallways in the film. Using depth of field, Olmi shows a pitiless architecture to which human beings are in service; only occasionally do a few people appear and when they’re overheard, it’s a petty discussion among messengers about lunch. Domenico, seems to shrink as he moves through this bizarre place, the building like the guts of a very efficient machine. He sees nearly no one, until he enters the tiny waiting room crowded with his fellow competitors. They master a battery of ludicrous exams of knowledge and psychology whose clear meaninglessness imbues them with a certain mystery for the aspirants.
Shahn at sixmartinis and the seventh art hones in on Olmi's eye for architecture with a series of evocative screen captures, including the following contrasting pairs:
and these two:
Aside from the human characters... it is the character of the space they inhabit that one remembers from Il Posto. Corridors and rooms appear to be director Ermanno Olmi's shorthand for identifying his human characters. Thus Domenico virtually throughout is defined by corridors and the implication that he's a young man on the move with a future still uncertain, unreached. Whether it's the corridor leading him to different phases of the job test, or the corridor where he learns the ropes of being a messenger in the administration building, or even the corridor-like balcony of the apartment house where he lives with his parents and brother, one always has the hope that it's not going to lead to a dead end. Yet we and he are constantly being led into claustrophobic rooms, none more so than the one where eight clerks work like ciphers under an accountant. From the first time we see this room, there is already the suspicion that here lies Domenico's future.
There is no effort to hide the blandness and utter dispiritedness of that future. From the faceless building to its empty, colourless interior walls, from the regimented lives of the employees (and the vignettes of their mundane home life) to the humourless demeanour of their bosses, all seem to put the lie to the desirability of the much sought-after "job for life." Yet if Domenico is an example, none of these things seem to matter. Anything can be tolerated in order to achieve the prize. For the prize represents safety and comfort without responsibility, almost like being a child at home once again. It's all almost unbelievable, yet it was the director's own experiences that formed the basis for the story. Olmi clerked in a Milanese office for 10 years before his film aspirations drove him to escape.
- Barrie Maxwell for DVD Verdict
Olmi's genius in Il Posto is in his beautifully composed, lingering shots. Whether in a medium, hand-held, or close-up, Olmi studies a face or a scene long enough for us to see its platitudes with subtle power. Domenico's face is a landscape of emotion, though heavily suppressed — in small smiles, dejected eyes, and embarrassed blushes, we virtually watch him grow before our eyes. Some critics couldn't stomach Olmi's passive Domenico, but there's nothing pathetic about him, he's just a shy, confused person right at the start of life. There's a lot of De Sica in Olmi (whom Olmi acknowledged as an influence) but we also see what came after. As stated in Kent Jones's essay included with this DVD, Martin Scorsese borrowed shots from Il Posto for Raging Bull, and there are similar echoes in Clockwatchers (director Jill Sprecher credits Olmi as an influence on that film), Office Space, and Time Out. It's startling to notice that, before computer cubicles, desk jobs were just as dismal 40 years ago as they are today.
- Kim Morgan for The DVD Journal
What made the biggest impression on me in seeing Il Posto was how in subject matter, it showed how little has changed in the workplace in the past forty-five plus years. Except that employees are considered disposable by many large, and even not so large companies, much of what happens in Il Posto would be not only recognizable, but also easily identifiable, for those still in the workforce. The tests that seem remotely related to the actual job, the absurd interview questions, and the fidgety waiting for the word that one is chosen to spend one's days enclosed in an office doing something that is more about paying bills than about personal fulfillment remains. Even the office New Year's party, like many office holiday parties, is more a place of desperation than merriment. That fellow employees seems to be busy doing something other than the actual work they were hired to do is a given. Except for the technology, the office space in 1961 Milan is not too different from Office Space.
- Peter Nellhaus at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee
In "The Same Gestures at Different Speeds: Work and Pleasure at the Movies," a fascinating article that compares the treatment of work in different films, John Carnahan contrasts Il Posto with Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera:
While Vertov's slogan was "reality, not realism," Ermanno Olmi's 1962 Il Posto shows how a realist narrative can collapse the distance between viewer and subject. Olmi filmed his autobiographical story on weekends inside the Milan offices of Edison Electric where he had worked since adolescence, using an amateur cast that included laid-off clerks from the local unemployment office. Olmi's adolescent hero, played by Sandro Panseri, goes to sleep a student and wakes up to the desk job he's meant to have for the rest of his life. Clerical work in postwar Italy was poorly paid but extremely secure, which makes the Edison offices "like a village" (as Olmi remarks on the Criterion DVD) where all the stages of life are bent over the same tasks. Panseri is finding his bearings in this world and just beginning to sense that he'll never leave it. His new village is sometimes funny, sad, or Kafkaesque, but mostly indifferent, a fact of life. The movie often abandons Panseri to gaze curiously at his older co-workers. At home, the quiet loner nobody likes is writing a novel; a fat-necked tough guy sings opera in a bar; a devil-faced, eccentric old man with a cigarette holder sits in a plush chair he seems unable to leave. We glimpse them but we never figure them out; Panseri is still innocent of quick judgements and so is Olmi's camera. Olmi insists that Il Posto is too realistic to be compared to Italian classics like The Bicycle Thief, with their professional actors and calculated dramatic arcs. He may be right. Il Posto takes realist fiction to its limits.
The camera placement and movement, the expressive visual touches such as Domenico sitting way below the boss's desk in his initial interview, and the performances by a cast of non-professional actors, are all first rate. Olmi's intent is to create the feeling of being at your first job, in a forbidding environment, and always looking at others for clues as to how to behave. If you've ever experienced something like that, the movie is immediately recognizable, moving, and quietly funny.
- Chris Dashiell for Cinescene
Olmi’s strengths as a filmmaker lie in realism, performance, and sympathy. A true humanist, he finds the strengths and weaknesses of his characters as facets in the same raw gem. His cuts between the faces of Domenico and Antonietta, greatly enhanced by the unpolished beauty of Panseri and Detto, reveal more about their personalities than any number of pages of dialogue ever could. The darting of eyes, the pursing of lips...it is these facial tics that show the true nature of human beings, and Olmi captures them without force or urgency. But the director is not simply about close-ups; he also frames the crowded applicants like cattle in a pen, or a lone clerk engulfed by spacious, labyrinthine hallways. For all of the inherent social and economic commentary, there is much more importance weighted on people, relationships, and community. This is where Ermanno Olmi’s true allegiance and interests lie, not with observations only on the sordid state of the postwar world, but in the simple, uncertain, yet undeniably dramatic lives of everyday citizens.
- Adam / Eleven of Film at 11
What really sticks out to me is Olmi's use of glances, reaction shots, and eyelines/POVs -- the foundation of subjective narrative cinema. One develops quite an attachment to the main character, a polite and sheepish voyeur with his own set of fixations and desires -- mainly centered around an attractive young girl. I can really identify with his honest little pretenses, his embarassed hesitations, and his choice to forge on ahead in the direction in which he's pointing.
- From Dr. Bertier's Diagnosis
Review by Dennis Lim for the Village Voice
The Aspect Ratio considers Il Posto one of the best films of the 1960s.