Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: Work in All its Nobility and Drudgery: The Films of Ermanno Olmi

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:51:00 AM
Sandro Panseri plays a young man in search of a secure job in <i>Il Posto</i> (1961).
Sandro Panseri plays a young man in search of a secure job in Il Posto (1961).

Italian film director Ermanno Olmi spent much of his career examining people at work. He depicted work in all its nobility and suffering, showing his characters enjoying its rewards and facing down its drudgery.  

Pacific Film Archive is presenting a retrospective of the director’s films, “Life’s Work: The Cinema of Ermanno Olmi.” The series begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday with Time Stood Still (1959) and continues through Oct. 30. 

One of Olmi’s best-known films is Il Posto (1961), which screens at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3. Il Posto could almost 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. 

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 Domenico 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, really—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. 






Through Oct. 30 at Pacific Film Archive, 

2575 Bancroft Ave. 


IL POSTO (1961)  

93 minutes. 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3.