“The Chance of a Lifetime.”
Il Posto was director Ermanno Olmi’s first feature film of real consequence. (He had previously made Time Stood Still in 1958.) He filmed during evenings and weekends over a six-week period in the buildings of the Edisonvolta company where he was working as a documentary filmmaker. The film had many of the characteristics of the film style with which he would become identified — simple and natural settings, amateur actors, unobtrusive camera work, and a lack of elaborate lighting. It focused on a story set in Milan, the capital of the Italian province of Lombardy, a region that would also come to be closely associated with Olmi’s work. Most importantly, the film illustrated a closeness between the director and his characters that was the most significant difference between Olmi’s work and any of the other neorealist directors, such as Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti. Il Posto opened in 1961 and was acclaimed at the Venice Film Festival. It later opened in the United States under the title The Sound of Trumpets — an apt title, once you’ve seen the film.
Criterion has now made Il Posto available on DVD with a very fine digital transfer from the restored 35mm original negative.
Domenico, a young man who lives with his parents and brother in an apartment on the outskirts of Milan, has been recruited by an important company in the city as a candidate for a permanent post — a coveted “job for life.” He undergoes several aptitude and physical exams along with a large number of other hopefuls and finally learns that he is one of the few successful candidates. Another is Antonietta, a young woman in whom he becomes interested. Domenico is assigned to the Administration Division where he learns that there is no permanent clerical position available at the moment. He will be a messenger to start out and learn the ropes until a clerical opening occurs. This temporary situation gives Domenico an opportunity to see exactly what he might be getting into, as well as time to pursue Antonietta.
Here we have a true example of a piece of artistry that is so much more than the sum of its parts. The story is deceptively simple. The setting is bland. The acting is competent. Yet the result is spellbinding — mixing comedy and drama, hope and despair, dreams and reality, and filtering them all through the eyes of an amazing cast of characters who are like caricatures at times yet achingly true-to-life at others.
Aside from the human characters (about whom, more later), it is the character of the space they inhabit that one remembers from Il Posto. Corridors and rooms appear to be director Ermanno Olmi’s shorthand for identifying his human characters. Thus Domenico virtually throughout is defined by corridors and the implication that he’s a young man on the move with a future still uncertain, unreached. Whether it’s the corridor leading him to different phases of the job test, or the corridor where he learns the ropes of being a messenger in the administration building, or even the corridor-like balcony of the apartment house where he lives with his parents and brother, one always has the hope that it’s not going to lead to a dead end. Yet we and he are constantly being led into claustrophobic rooms, none more so than the one where eight clerks work like ciphers under an accountant. From the first time we see this room, there is already the suspicion that here lies Domenico’s future.
There is no effort to hide the blandness and utter dispiritedness of that future. From the faceless building to its empty, colourless interior walls, from the regimented lives of the employees (and the vignettes of their mundane home life) to the humourless demeanour of their bosses, all seem to put the lie to the desirability of the much sought-after “job for life.” Yet if Domenico is an example, none of these things seem to matter. Anything can be tolerated in order to achieve the prize. For the prize represents safety and comfort without responsibility, almost like being a child at home once again. It’s all almost unbelievable, yet it was the director’s own experiences that formed the basis for the story. Olmi clerked in a Milanese office for 10 years before his film aspirations drove him to escape.
Yet throughout all this, we manage to smile or chuckle or even laugh out loud on occasion, for Olmi has filled his story with a wonderful assortment of quirky characters who come and go quickly for the most part. All have some amusing comment to make, or character trait to illustrate, that seem both real and unreal at the same time. One’s first reaction is to say that nobody would really act or speak like that, yet they do so with such a non-cinematic impression that one ends up accepting them as the real people they are intended to be.
The character of Domenico is of course the central force in the film, and it is partly his own diffident nature that defines the questionable value of the job-for-life goal. His slowness to react, whether it’s to answer questions or to take action, make us wonder if he is capable of ever moving beyond a job with the company once he has it. His actions in respect to the young woman Antonietta, in whom he becomes interested, lack the resolve and fervour needed to get what he really wants. Something will have to change in him to make him ever move beyond the job-for-life once he has it. The role is nicely played by a somewhat sad-faced Sandro Panseri, who had a couple of later roles in the 1960s and then abandoned acting. Antonietta was played by Loredana Detto who then promptly retired from acting and married Ermanno Olmi.
For Ermanno Olmi, Il Posto was the key to his future directing career, opening doors to producers that allowed him more flexibility to present his ideas on film — with the likes of I Fidanzati (1962), A Man Named John (1965), The Tree with the Wooden Clogs (1978), and The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988). None, however, really bettered Il Posto for its honesty and deceptive simplicity.
Criterion’s DVD has been created from a new high-definition digital transfer from the restored 35mm original negative. The restoration involved the use of the Oliver electronic wetgate process as well as digital removal of thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches. The results are very fine indeed, with the full-frame (in accord with the original aspect ratio), black and white image exhibiting deep blacks and a very well defined gray scale. Shadow detail is impressive. Overall, the image has a film-like look to it, marred only occasionally by minor edge effects. A restoration demonstration included as one of the supplements shows clearly the significant improvements that Criterion’s work has accomplished.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono sound track has also benefited from digital clean-up and is quite adequate for the task. Hiss and pops have been virtually eliminated.
A nice array of supplements has been assembled. Most interesting is a 49-minute 1967 featurette by Olmi entitled La Cotta (The Crush). With affection and poignancy, it tells the story of a teenage boy’s first love, and is in some ways reminiscent of the Domenico/Antonietta relationship in Il Posto. Image-wise, it’s not nearly the equal of Il Posto, but it is quite watchable. A 19-minute retrospective featuring interviews with Olmi and occasional collaborator Tullio Kezich provides an informative background to the making of Il Posto. Rounding out the disc are a lengthy deleted scene, the original theatrical trailer, and an essay by film writer Kent Jones.
Those who have seen Il Posto are lucky; they know the film’s numerous pleasures. Others yet to see the film are even luckier, for they have the first experience of those pleasures still ahead to delight them.
Do not be deceived by a synopsis of this film’s deceptively simple story. It’s a film of depth, close observation, and ultimately warmth that will reward viewers over and over.
Criterion’s presentation is superior indeed. Highly recommended.
Il Posto should have a “place for life” on your shelf. Court is adjourned.