Director: Ermanno Olmi
Cast: Carlo Gabrini, Anna Canzi
(Titanus, 1962) Rated: Not Rated
DVD release date: 24 June 2003 (Criterion Collection)
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Working Man’s Blues
Ermanno Olmi may not be as well known in this country as Antonioni or Fellini, but he remains nonetheless one of the major filmmakers in contemporary Italian cinema. Like these others, if not virtually every other director in Italy who worked after WWII, Olmi was affected by the signature works of the neo-realist movement, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1947). Rossellini and De Sica used details of daily life as the raw material for cinema, a lesson their successors took to heart. They also showed that films did not require stars, elaborate plots or much more than the ingenious organization of what can be found all about us in order to compete with narratives conjured up out of the imagination.
Olmi resolutely committed himself to depicting the lives of the working class without ennobling them or making out of their experience some species of ideological melodrama. Part of the reason for his interest in such subject matter, as well as his skill at depicting it, lies in Olmi’s own background and entrance into cinema. Born in Bergamo, he moved with his family to Milan to find work and became an employee of the Edison factory. Eventually he landed a job shooting documentaries about the firm’s internal organization—its holiday camps, company schools and treatment of retirees—for seven years, before launching himself into a new career.
Like his protagonists then, Olmi lived through and went on to tell stories about the post-War Italian economic miracle. The dissolution of the rhythms and patterns of rural life and the forms of accommodation necessary to survive in corporate society that accompanied that social transformation recur throughout his work. If he mourns the damage done to human beings by the tyrannies of the daily grind, Olmi also refuses to condemn labor altogether, asserting, “Work is not a damnation for man. It is his chance to express himself, the average person’s opportunity to be creative. But work as it is organized becomes a condemnation. It annuls man. I am certainly not against work, or even against work which produces the things that society demands today. I am against the relationship man has today with the world he works in. Man is conditioned but he is also guilty of letting himself be conditioned.”
Olmi’s fascination with labor that others might demean as tedious or soul-destroying results in effective and rewarding films. Olmi’s protagonists are commonplace and flawed, yet captivating, in their bemused trials with corporate life, as in Il Posto (1961), or with the geographical transitions demanded by global flows of capital and management, as in I Fidanzati (1962). They endeavor to live a life that does not squelch their spirits even if it saps their souls.
The Criterion Collection editions of Il Posto and I Fidanzati evidence the company’s customary attention to detail. Both films have been extensively restored and their subtitles newly translated. They incorporate as well interviews with the director, who demonstrates the same kind of even-handedness and sense of purpose shown in his films. Like his characters, Olmi thinks of himself as an artisan, devoted to the making of films as others are to the completion of a report or the welding of a beam. For Olmi, the labor is its own reward, and we are in his debt for the exquisite simplicity and clarity of purpose that these quietly devastating stories communicate.
The plots of Il Posto and I Fidanzati may be anecdotal in the extreme, but Olmi’s treatment of the events doesn’t become lost in a random sequence of details. Both works detail journeys on the part of the protagonists from one familiar environment to a novel situation, as well as their amorous tribulations in the pursuit of a mate with whom to appreciate the unexpected experiences they encounter.
Each of the men, Domenico (Sandro Panzeri) in Il Posto and Giovanni (Carlo Gabrini) in I Fidanzati, are played by non-professionals, as is the case with other neo-realist works. Olmi does not foist a great deal of dialogue on them, yet they make up for their lack of volubility by the expressive nature of their features, particularly their eyes. Etched into their visages are all the regret, confusion, delight and triumph that excessive dialogue would only confer artificially.
In Il Posto, Domenico, like Olmi, is a under-class young man who opts out of higher education for the opportunities that a clerical position with an assured future will guarantee him. He gamely undergoes the standardized tests and psychological cross-examinations that the company demands and offers no complaint when made to work in a menial role until a desk job opens up. He meets an attractive young woman, Antonietta (Loredana Detto), at the examination, and begins, shyly, to court her. Their mutual pleasure in the new opportunities afforded by Milan emerges in an act as commonplace as sharing a cup of espresso.
Olmi observes the other workers at the company with an eye to the kind of idiosyncrasies that allow them to retain self-respect in the face of daily drudgery. How someone lights a cigarette, throws out a piece of paper or cleans out a drawer amounts to a revelation, an indication of individuality. Olmi’s camera records these episodes with a kind of rapture, using his training in documentary to make habitual gestures come alive.
The film concludes with a dance sequence, a form of interaction that fascinates Olmi. Like Fellini, he finds evidence of character in movement, as the very practice of walking across a floor or swaying to a song in the arms of another exposes the complexity of our personalities. As Domenico waits and watches for Antonietta, he is drawn into a crowd of his co-workers, whom he does not really know, but with whom he shares a desire to obliterate their isolation if only briefly through physical contact. The young man’s future may be one of routine for years on end, but he faces that prospect with wide-eyed expectation.
I Fidanzati, Olmi’s second feature, is shorter than its predecessor, but digs deeper into cinematic possibilities. He plays more deliberately with narrative conventions, shifting the temporal structure without regard for chronology. The plot focuses more resolutely on a single couple alone, with other characters more or less appendages to that relationship. Giovanni works as a skilled laborer in a small town, only to have the company recommend that he move temporarily to Sicily to complete the construction of a chemical factory. Older than Domenico and apparently devoid of other options for his future, Giovanni convinces himself that the transition is unavoidable. But the change is not without its costs. He leaves behind his aging father, who drinks too much and has little on his mind other than passing the hours of the day. More crucially, he severs ties with his girlfriend Liliana (Anna Canzi).
Olmi here incorporates the physical environment to symbolize Giovanni’s estrangement, revealing the worker’s plight through shots of empty streets and pale brick buildings. Even when Giovanni and some coworkers travel to a street festival, there is little indication of integration into another society, just momentary pleasure in the boisterous mob. Such loneliness is a function of the “development” they are helping to build. In another scene, as workers gather for a swim, their actions appear in close-ups, such that one imagines they are at the ocean shore. When the camera cuts to a long shot, we realize they are bathing in a scummy pool of water close to a factory.
I Fidanzati proves to be as inconclusive as Il Posto. In the earlier film, we have no firm sense that Domenico will ever again encounter Antonietta, and in the latter, the bond between Giovanni and Liliani hangs in the balance. Though I Fidanzati incorporates a voice-over letter from Liliani to Giovanni that conjures up what their life might be in the future, whether or not such events will come to pass remain undisclosed. Their life together may prove as fleeting as a turn around the dance hall, overwhelmed by the implacable demands of daily life.