Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Welcome to the Working Week

Sometimes the films that say the most do it by saying the least. Ermanno Olmi's 1961 film, Il Posto, is a perfect example. It takes an extremely ordinary, everyday event -- a young man takes an exam for a job, and gets it -- and turns it into a broad reflection on drudgery, systemization, and the pattern of a certain type of existence. It's about boredom, but it isn't boring; actually, it's frightening. If you spend your days in a cubicle, it's probably like watching your wasted life pass before your eyes.

This is what William Blake called "seeing the world in a grain of sand."

Domenico, who lives with his mother, father and brother in one of those cramped lower middle class Italian homes where the bed is in the kitchen, is about to take an exam for a job. We don't know what kind of job -- except that it's for some large organization -- and it doesn't matter. What matters, as far as his family is concerned, is that it offers lifelong security, and you can tell just by looking at his parents that if Domenico raised the slightest objection, if he had other goals, his Mom and Dad would probably throw him out of the house.

Not that he would, actually, because Domenico doesn't seem like the type to resist the cruelties of fate; as we learn later, he has dropped out of school to enter the working world to help support the family as they send his younger, smarter brother on to higher education.

While waiting to take the exam, which proves to him rather simple, Domenico meets a fetching young lady, Antonietta; the idea of getting to see her on a daily basis gives him some hope for the job ahead.

Alas, they are in separate departments, and Domenico settles into life as a "messenger," although basically all his job amounts is sitting around. Everyone else in his department, many of them twice his age, have found something to do over the years; their days are filled with mundane little duties and whatever rituals they have to make life bearable. One gent cuts his cigarettes in half, arranges them in a case, takes one and smokes it in a holder, and then settles down to whatever his work is. Another guy complains about the lamp on his desk.

Some have dreams beyond the desks they answer to every day. One man is a fine opera singer. Another woman, whose perpetual lateness will eventually catch up to her, is privately writing a novel.

The new world into which Domenico has moved, in other words, is full of pipe dreams, lost opportunities and wasted time. But look on the bright side: you get lifelong security.

There are, too, occasional get-togethers outside the office. At a New Year's Eve party, Domenico plays the wallflower until a few drinks temporarily kills the sense of loneliness that comes with lifelong security.

In the course of 90 minutes, there is neither a single bad shot nor a single wasted shot in Il Posto; in fact, I think it's one of the most precise films I've seen in a long time; a beautiful film, a model of economy that reflects life with honesty, sympathy and wit, and what I like to call a very suggestive film -- that is, it works almost like a great photograph in that you can look at all these people and feel or creatively imagine other things about them. You may find yourself wondering what would happen if Domenico and Antonietta got married -- would they turn out any differently from their own parents?

It's also a film that is as relevant now as ever.

Today's Domenicos are staring into PCs.

They are still listening to the annoying, endless, back-and-forth whirr of the copier down the hall.

And people still tell the newcomers: "We're just like one big family here."

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