Have I written about Italian neorealism on here? You know what the problem with neorealism is? That since it came to the popular consciousness everything that has similar traits draws comparisons. If a film uses non-professional actors, on-location shooting, and has long takes then it’s like a neorealist film. While this comparison is fair enough at times (maybe late 90s Iranian film is the most legit) it gets tired fast. Neorealism was both a great period and style in its defined boundaries and discernible attributes, but it does these films a disservice to try to twist them into every comparison possible.
So why am I complaining? I’m not entirely sure. I meant to talk about Olmi’s 1961 masterpiece Il Posto. This is a true masterpiece. Here’s the neorealist thread: without doing any research I would guess that Il Posto was shot in a way similar to the Umberto D’s and Germany Year Zero’s of the earlier decade. The traits I mentioned earlier could tie it in as neorealist, but so could its relative non-narrative-ness. I think that the fact that there are frequent shots out of focus is testament, likely, to its low-budget and run-and-gun shoot.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to make this comparison outright. Here’s why: those neorealist films – Bicycle Thieves or Rome: Open City are probably the two most frequently cited – look to describe a much wider human condition. They are far more microcosmic than a film like Il Posto.
Now don’t get me wrong, Il Posto most certainly speaks to the condition – more psychological than social – of the working class in 1960s Italy, but its scope is not as far-reaching. It doesn’t seek to speak for an entire people in a broad or allegorical way.
What Il Posto is, is likely the best, or one of the best films about young love I have ever seen. Domenico (Sandro Panseri) is a young teenager. At an absurd job interview (more on that later) he meets Magali (Loredana Detto). What ensues is a sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-adolescently-tragic tale of falling in like.
I’d guess that Terry Gilliam has seen Il Posto once or twice, particularly pre-Brazil. Olmi’s film, though quite different from Gilliam’s, demonstrates the same fondness for cavernous bureaucratic spaces and ridiculous bureaucratic personalities. Domenico’s job interview consists of, among other things, one math problem, holding his hands at shoulder level and turning his palms up and down, and squatting. None of it seems to add up to the job he is ultimately presented with: messenger.
In fact, it’s unclear if Domenico ever even learns to deliver a message. But it’s okay, because this is only an interim job before he moves up the Administration ladder.
More on the bureaucracy angle: mid-film Olmi cuts away from his protagonist entirely. He cuts to a room filled with middle-aged men and women, each hunched over a small desk and each idiosyncratic in their own way. In a series of small vignettes we are introduced to each man and woman’s home life. At first view it’s bizarrely placed and seems to function mostly as a sort of intermission from the main “plot” which is Domenico’s naive, innocent pursuit of Magali. In reality, the sequence is meant to foreshadow the ending of the film and becomes particularly poignant during the final 2 minutes of the film.
Painting Domenico as naive and innocent is not to say that Magali is the opposite. In fact she is carefree and as likable a character. I haven’t seen a film in some time where I’ve so liked both the main characters and rooted for them so much – Chomet’s The Illusionist may have been the last. Much credit goes to the casting choices – just the faces of the boy and girl are strongly featured and sympathetic. Credit also goes to Olmi who directs a nearly silent series of shots during the interview lunch break that really establishes their connection.
Two moments in this series of shots that stand out: Domenico and Magali are in a coffee shop. It’s clearly their first time ordering coffee. They are tentative and almost over-cautious. Olmi allows the noise of the coffee-shop to overwhelm and eschews the use of close-up. We are bystander, or better yet, worker, watching from our small corner as these two people experience a new part of life…together. It’s great.
Towards the end of this series there’s a shot of Domenico and Magali running hand-in-hand together. Olmi cuts to a close-up of their hands. How he avoids being cliche and cheesy here is a miracle. But credit the setup (scenes like the coffee shop) and the fact that neither character pays any mind to their hands touching. This isn’t a “moment” for either of them – it’s a natural reaction. It’s a brilliant directorial decision. This shot would be entirely different and worse had Olmi just told the two actors, “look at one another when your hand’s touch.”
Il Posto also reminds me of another favorite film of mine – Closely Watched Trains. Both follow a naive young man in some sort of bureaucratic department as he comes of age (or tries to come of age) sexually.
This is a post that I won’t write any spoilers for, because everyone should see this film. I will say that there is a fantastic moment consisting of mere shot-reverse-shot when Domenico and Magali meet again after some time. We have anticipated and hoped for the meaning as much as Domenico and the exchange of looks, expertly cut together, is both heartbreaking in its innocence and wonderful in its possibilities.