Life in the working world isn’t exactly turning out the way Domenico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri) might have hoped it would.
Ermanno Olmi’s 1961 film Il Posto is an understated, often documentary-like look at a young man — a boy, really — entering the workforce for the first time. “This is the chance of a lifetime. If you get in there, you’ve got a job for life,” his mother tells him as he sets off for a job interview at a large company in Milan, the nearest city to his small hometown. (He wants to be a surveyor, but because his younger brother is still in school, he has to go to work instead of furthering his own education.) Upon arriving, he finds himself part of a large group of potential employees — most about his own age, a few significantly older. Together, they undergo a series of tests, from math problems to physical fitness examinations to some downright bizarre questions. (“Does the future seem hopeless to you? Do you suffer from frequent itching? Did you wet the bed between the ages of eight and fourteen?”) Despite the intrusiveness of some of this, it all feels rather impersonal. The only real point of interest for Domenico is meeting and befriending one of his fellow applicants, a girl named Antonietta who goes by the nickname Magalì (Loredana Detto). When they both end up getting hired, Domenico looks forward to the chance to spend more time with her — and is immediately disappointed.
As it turns out, he and Magalì have been assigned to different departments, in different buildings; they eat lunch at different times; they leave at different times. To make matters worse, although Domenico is supposed to be working as a clerk, there’s no such position available for him at present. Until something opens up, he has to work as a messenger instead — a job in which he appears to spend most of his time sitting at a table with another messenger, a middle-aged man named Sartori who’s in no hurry to respond when his buzzer goes off. “Let them ring,” he says. “When they get tired, they’ll stop.” There are a few bright spots, lifelong job security and a paycheck (if not a large paycheck) chief among them; Domenico also takes pride in the uniform he gets to wear. Still, by and large, it’s a dull, uneventful way to make a living.
Then, one day near Christmas, Domenico gets the chance to talk to Magalì again. She tells him that he should come to the New Year’s Eve dance that the workers’ social group will be hosting. “I’m hoping my mother will let me go,” she says. Of course, Domenico doesn’t need any further encouragement. With great excitement, he sets out on the night of December 31st and makes his way to the party — only to find himself in a nearly empty room. No doubt he’s early, thanks to his eagerness; at any rate, there are more musicians and waiters hanging around than there are guests, and when Domenico sits down alone at a table, an older couple invites him to join them. Although he accepts out of politeness, his mind is constantly on Magalì. Before long, the room starts to fill up with people, young and old and in between, but Magalì is not among them.
And so, for Domenico, disappointment reigns; in fact, life as a whole must look pretty disappointing to him just then. But the dance, like life, goes on all the same, and it has its compensations, however small. One is champagne, which eventually helps Domenico join in the revelry; another is the friendliness and kindness of other people. They all have their own lives, their own dreams and difficulties and disappointments. At one point in the film, Olmi illustrates this by showing brief scenes from the personal lives of several employees: a man works on a novel while his landlady complains that he’s using too much light, another man sings opera in a smoky restaurant, a woman has problems with her son. None of this is particularly exciting or out of the ordinary; on the contrary, a good bit of it evokes Thoreau’s observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe, then, a New Year’s Eve party is more for them than a chance to have fun and connect with other people; maybe it also represents the hope of a better future, no matter how unlikely that may seem as they toil away at their desks day in and day out.
In the program for the 1964 release of Il Posto in the United States, Olmi wrote, “My purpose was to portray the courage it takes to live through the colorless, gray days which are, in anyone’s life, the majority; the rare opportunities, too precious to be lost, for finding love; the subtle distinction between acceptance and resignation. Even more strongly I wished to point out that habit does not necessarily lead to crystallization. Things have a way of changing just when we least expect it.”
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