Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: PFA Screens Two Italian Art House Classics

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday December 08, 2006

A fascinating pair of Italian films will screen this weekend at Pacific Film Archive. The first, Il Posto (1961), could be seen as a sequel to Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, presenting another quietly observant portrait of a young man suffering through a rite of passage. It’s as though the 13-year-old Antoine Donel of the earlier film has now grown into the 18-year-old Domenico Cantoni, sent by his parents into the big city of Milan to find a job.  

Directed by Ermanno Olmi, Il Posto fits in with the Italian neo-realism school of filmmaking in its presentation of a humanistic tale of youthful dreams and ambitions sacrificed at the altar of security and conformism.  

Domenico seems to dread his entry into the working world, a world presented as one of time-worn adults marking time in soulless, dreary employment. However, a ray of light appears in the form of a young woman named Antonietta (Loredana Detto), and her sparkling presence illuminates the screen as well as the life of the hero. Together they navigate the job application process and take pleasure in each other’s company, the two bright-eyed youths constituting a slightly subversive presence in an otherwise stale maze of corridors, offices and standard-issue furniture.  

The key to the film is Sandro Panseri, a non-professional actor with soulful eyes and the gentle, timid face of a youth trying to comprehend and master the ways of a foreign territory. He’s a small, skinny waif masquerading as a grown-up in ill-fitting grown-up clothing. He hits all the right notes and Olmi captures each one, showing us in wordless close-ups the fear, uncertainty, shyness and delight that flitter across the face of the young protagonist.  

But about three-quarters into the film, Olmi suddenly abandons the main character for an extended sequence in which we learn something of the personal lives of each one of a number of accountants at the unnamed firm where Domenico has landed. It may seem like a tangent at first, but the sequence marks the opening salvo in a tour de force closing sequence that drives home the film’s major themes.  

Domenico is promoted, and in an uncharacteristic but highly effective montage, Olmi shows us why. One of the accountants we’ve encountered has passed away, possibly by suicide, and his desk is turned over to Domenico, much to the dismay of his new colleagues. One, a 20-year veteran, complains to the manager, and when Domenico agrees to move to a desk in the back of the room, a frenzied and ruthless rush ensues as the other accountants begin a mad dash to claim the desk immediately in front of their own, a desperate game of musical chairs for which they’ve apparently been waiting for decades. 

The final shot shows Domencio watching a man at the front of the room as he cranks what appears to be a mimeograph machine, feeding paper into one end and removing it from the other as a deafening mechanical whirr dominates the soundtrack. The grind has begun.  

Yet as bleak as this conclusion may seem, it is also somewhat ambiguous, for throughout the film we have seen Domenico warmly befriended by the adults in his new environment, receiving a series of reassurances that a simpler life of lower expectations is not all bad but is in fact full of small pleasures. With these gentle moments of camaraderie and kindness, Olmi provides a welcome softening of the film’s sharp edge.  

Domenico may have found himself in a dispiriting situation, but there is still energy and vivaciousness and curiosity in his face, a sign that although life is certainly capable of pummeling the spirit out of a young man, he still has a choice, plenty of choices as a matter of fact, and retains the power to shape his own destiny. And the fact that Domenico is able to so clearly see his predicament in the closing scene leaves us with hope that he has the strength and determination to overcome it, now that he finally understands it. 


Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) similarly focuses on a main character with enormously expressive eyes in the form of Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), another youthful spirit facing dire circumstances. But the style and delivery of the tale could not be more different from the observational calm of Olmi’s Il Posto.  

La Strada tells the tale of a boorish brute of a traveling sideshow performer, Zampano, played by Anthony Quinn. When his wife dies, he travels back to her remote, impoverished village and essentially purchases her younger sister to take her place. Gelsomina has a clown-like countenance, and eventually she takes on the makeup of a clown, too. Her childish innocence calls to mind silent film comedian Harry Langdon, blending an adult body with an infantile purity that at times confounds us with its ambiguity.  

And despite its rather simple story, the film is full of ambiguities. Gelsominia is at once innocent and deeply aware of her place in Zampano’s life. And the Fool, a character capable of both cruelty and martyrdom, provides lessons in life and love for the main characters while treating them with a degree of contempt. 

The film itself seems to straddle two realms, leaning at times toward realism and at times toward a sort of fable-like fantasy. Beneath its circus settings, desolate stretches of beach and never-ending highways, it is a simple love story about a man who cannot admit his feelings and a child-like woman who is entirely governed by her own. 

La Strada concludes with a powerful shot of Zampano alone on the beach after learning that his dismissal of Gelsomina has led her to madness and death. As he faces the open sea, he glances upwards for a moment, as though discovering God for the first time and begging his forgiveness. And it seems like the first time that he has lifted his brooding gaze from the ground, the first time we have seen the whites of his eyes. But it is too late now, and Zampano simply crumbles to the ground as though merging with the brittle sand.  

The two films are showing as part of PFA’s tribute to Janus Films, the American distributor responsible for bringing so many foreign art house films to the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. The series concludes next week with a screening of Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer (1963). 

Both Il Posto and La Strada are available individually on DVD from the Criterion Collection or as part of Criterion’s new 50-film Janus box set, 50 Years of Essential Art House, available at 


IL POSTO (1961) 

Directed by Ermanno Olmi. 93 minutes.  

6:30 p.m. Friday.  


LA STRADA (1956) 

Directed by Federico Fellini. 108 minutes.  

5 p.m. Saturday.  


Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way. $4-$8. 



Photograph: Sandro Panseri plays a young in search of secure job in Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961).