Life’s most agonizing transition arguably occurs when the fragile boundary between childhood and adulthood blurs and rather quickly vanishes; that emotionally quizzical overlap during which the insecurities and uncertainties of youth immediately and awkwardly merge with the responsibilities and gray-scale cynicism of adulthood. It’s a heady mix of fear and excitement when wide-eyed innocence cosmically clashes with hardcore reality, and that makes this tumultuous era ripe for exploration. Representations of this conflict are often referred to as “coming-of-age” stories, a term which once radiated depth and tenderness but seems to have been hijacked in popular cinema by insipid “teen comedies” (in which all of life’s mysteries inevitably get solved by the evening of the prom or during some mathematically-improbable yet delightfully wacky European spy caper.)
Such is not the case with Il Posto, director Ermanno Olmi’s semi-autobiographical feature film debut. Hearkening back to the earlier Italian neorealist movement, Il Posto is a lovely film, a gentle, bittersweet, yet strangely beautiful slice-of-life that poignantly exposes the inane, hopeless, and dehumanizing nature of the corporate workplace, while at the same time revealing the joy and simple pleasures that can be found outside life’s drudgeries. A fiercely humanistic tale, Olmi’s film details the story of Domenico, a young man who travels from his small village to Milan in order to apply for a government job that, hopefully, will set him up for life.
The result is what happens when the “hero’s journey” trope is deconstructed and demolished, supplanted by dead-eyed pragmatism, or perhaps even the taciturn acceptance that victory is merely adapting to the prevailing winds of exponentially-lowered expectations. Il Posto understands this, generating simple humor and evoking basic truths through its scrutiny of Domenico’s travails. Call them quest events, if you will, which include a puzzling employment examination which calls for a 40-minute math problem (one that would take any half-educated individual less than a minute to complete), a bizarre series of deep knee bends and calisthenics, and a barrage of psychological questions that border on the inane. During these Puzzling Quests of the Mundane, Domenico meets a lovely young lady named Antonietta, a doe-eyed Dulcinea whose pretty visage and sweet nature makes Domenico’s entrance into the world of adulthood seem slightly less arduous. But when they end up working in separate buildings and he spies her happily in the company of her male co-workers, any kind of joy that can be derived from his loveless work seems spurious at best.
One’s first job in the adult workplace is usually their most miserable — I almost instantly recoil in horror when remembering a certain part-time stint as a telemarketer for a mortuary. Il Posto excels in its depiction of the loneliness and desperation that one encounters when transitioning into adulthood, while still finding moments of joy, wonder, and sweet reflection in life’s most trying moments. The film does take a few unconventional turns in the middle as the point-of-view shifts from Domenico to some of the company’s adult workers, and the film slightly suffers for it. Nonetheless, Il Posto captures the cliched end-of-innocence brilliantly, presenting an honest chronicle of the bland, routine drudgery that comes part and parcel with the enslavement of responsibility. It offers no grand solutions or profound insights into any of life’s mysteries, but rather explores, with simple yet grand conviction, the small slices of life that resonate with truth and universality. Like the haunting look in Domenico’s eyes that end the film, this grand and touching film lingers with you long after the final credits have ended.