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September 17, 2007

Il Posto

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Ermanno Olmi - 1961
Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD

On Wednesday, Edward Copeland will post the top vote getters from from a list compiled last month. To a certain extent, the films may reflect not only critical choices but will generational as well. What has me reflecting about that viewpoint was reading an interview with Jack Nicholson where he mentioned Il Posto as his idea of a truly great film. There is very little of substance in English on Ermanno Olmi. Seeing Il Posto for the first time made me think about how inconstant the critical landscape is, with the "discovery" of newer filmmakers, or of other past films and filmmakers that at an earlier time were considered less worthy of serious evaluation.

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.

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Olmi's film is an update version of neo-realism with a cast of non-professionals. In a recent interview, Olmi mentions that the "star" of the film, Sandro Panseri, was now a supermarket manager. The object of Panseri's tentative affections, Loredana Detto, left acting to become Mrs. Ermanno Olmi. The documentary flavor comes from shooting in the streets of Milan and the Lombardy countryside, and especially inside the office building with the miles of hallways, and cramped and badly lit working spaces. There is a montage that almost seems like a non sequitur until the realization comes that one is watching excerpts of the lives of some of the staff outside of the office, a reminder that one's working life is not always how one thinks of oneself.

The ending of the film is perhaps more ambiguous than Olmi intended, or at least is up for more than one interpretation. Panseri has finally been promoted from messenger to clerk, in part the result of the sudden death of one of the employees. The former employee's desk turns out to represent a degree of status and seniority, meaningful only to those who have dutifully shown up for several years. In some ways these fellow employees may remind some of Takashi Shimura's characters in Ikiru, who showed up to work every day because he was afraid that if he was absent, he would not be missed. The film ends with a close up of Panseri to the sound of a loud mimeograph machine. While Olmi has claimed that Panseri is looking to his life beyond the office, one could also read this shot as that of someone who realizes that his goal has turned out to be far less than what he had hoped for, with little promise for the future, especially if the lives of his older co-workers is any indication. Even though Il Posto is partially autobiographical, while Olmi's life as a young office worker eventually lead to a career as a documentary, and narrative filmmaker, the more typical scenario is that the promotion to low level office worker is as far into the future as many would ever see.

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Posted by peter at September 17, 2007 12:31 AM