Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Consider for a moment the greatness of the Italian cinema in 1960 and 1961: The rising brilliance exhibited by films such as Fellini’s La Dolce vita, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and La Notte, Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli, Pasolini’s Accattone, Mario Bava’s La Maschera del demonio, and Pietro Germi’s Divorzio all’italiana, the declining but continued mastery of cinematic form by de Sica, Rossellini, and de Santis. Lost among all of this until very recently was a small gem by a neophyte director named Ermanno Olmi, a self-taught director of industrial films and documentaries. Olmi’s second feature is a beautiful black and white study of a boy discovering his first job and first love. Now that the dust kicked up by the Italian New Wave has settled and Olmi’s film has been resurrected by those twin curators of European art films, Rialto Pictures and The Criterion Collection, we are finally able to appreciate its heretofore overlooked importance.
Il Posto stands apart from its contemporaries in its marked simplicity. Everything about the film is characterized by a remarkable unfussiness. Camera movement, framing, lighting, editing, narrative, sound, and acting all do what they are supposed to do and no more. That is not to say that it possesses an austerity on the level of a film by Bresson, but in comparison to the baroque contortions of a Fellini or a Visconti, it might seem that way. The most striking component of the film’s simplicity is its relative quietness. With the exception of a couple of brief, boisterous street scenes and the climactic party scene, the film feels virtually silent. Whole conversations are conducted in whispers. Minutes pass as we watch characters work or wait in expectant stillness. It’s a bracing change of pace not only from some of its more rowdy contemporaries, but also from the style of today’s cinema in which it seems even light romantic comedies have to have at least one exploding car.
At the center of all this quiet is Domenico, our lead character. The success of Il Posto rests on the innocent charm of this Brillo-topped boy, played by non-professional Sandro Panseri, and he has it in spades. Panseri speaks volumes with the subtlest expressions. Every emotion is writ large across his kind, open face — the awkward discomfort of trying on overcoats with his mother, the disappointment of not finding his crush waiting for him on the first day of the job, and the irrepressible joy of seeing her when she finally does arrive. It is tempting — but all too easy — to say that the film charts Domenico’s metamorphosis from child to adult. Olmi’s film is too brief and unpretentious for that, but it does capture him just on the brink of that moment; a moment in our own lives that every one of us recalls with terrible clarity. Nevertheless, it is not just another painful to watch coming of age film. Anyone who has suffered the almost unbearable self-consciousness that attends starting a new job or remembers what it is like to meet a new person and hope that they might become more than a friend will see in Domenico a reflection of their own experience. Whereas Fellini, Visconti, and Antonioni show us our lives as we might like to imagine them to be — full of whimsical romance, earth-shaking melodrama, and periods of insufferable ennui — Olmi shows us our lives as they truly are — mundane, unimportant, but touched with occasional and small moments of sublime pleasure and defeating heartbreak. Il Posto is a finely crafted, unassuming, gentle film, but it has the honesty, integrity, and emotional strength to stand with the giants of its era.