Reviews

Il Posto / I Fidanzati (1961/1962)

David Sanjek

Like his subjects, Olmi lived through and went on to tell stories about the post-War Italian economic miracle.


Il Posto

Director: Ermanno Olmi
Cast: Sandro Panseri, Loredana Detto
Distributor: Criterion Collection
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Studio: Titanus
First date: 1962
US DVD Release Date: 2003-06-24

I FIDANZATI
Director: Ermanno Olmi
Cast: Carlo Gabrini, Anna Canzi
(Titanus, 1962) Rated: Not Rated
DVD release date: 24 June 2003 (Criterion Collection)

by David Sanjek

Il Posto


I Fidanzati

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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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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