Labor Relations

Ermanno Olmi, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978, color film in 35 mm, 186 minutes. Production still.

IN ONE OF THE MANY CLOSE-UPS in Ermanno Olmi’s Il posto (1961), audiences come face-to-face with the film’s young, wide-eyed protagonist, Domenico, who is seated at the desk of his new big-city position (the “posto” in question), staring at a mimeograph machine as his colleague’s arm works the machine’s rotating plates. The boy’s glazed look registers the rote ceremony with a kind of detached horror. We watch as this aspiring office worker—recently arrived in Milan from a small town—is inducted into the unfeeling rituals of corporate efficiency. More an affectless anticlimax than a momentous denouement, this shot–reverse shot arguably constitutes Il posto’s key moment, a condensation of the film’s chilling pathos and wry humor. For Italy’s belated arrival as an economic and industrial powerhouse after World War II came at a dire price—one etched, with a confusion at once ineffable and definite, into Domenico’s ingenuous face.

As part of what film scholar P. Adams Sitney once dubbed “New Wave Neorealism,” Il posto rode the resurgence of Italy’s postwar cinema scene, which had crested a year earlier with Fellini’s La dolce vita, Antonioni’s L’avventura, and Visconti’s Rocco e i sue fratelli. Like these directors, the young Olmi used the recent lessons of Neorealist film to forge his own, somewhat more auteurist vision—though one still rooted in a basic concern with ordinary subjects and featuring nonprofessional actors. If any single leitmotif links together the works in Olmi’s expansive oeuvre, which has evolved over several generations and countless governments, it is the theme of work. Whether as a dehumanizing atomization of individual plight or a redemptive source of intimacy and solidarity, the labor trope threads together films as disparate in setting and subject as Il posto, One Fine Day (1969), and The Scavengers (1970).

In ways comparable to his contemporary Pier Paolo Pasolini, Olmi fetishized certain aspects of premodern society and culture, using them as counterpoints to the alienated (and alienating) conditions that subtended Italy’s induction to urban modernity. Another peer, Antonioni, distilled that alienation into a visual and spatial subject in its own right. But Olmi never relinquished his belief in, and evocation of, the redemptive humanism of social bonds. Olmi’s origins—he hails from a Lombardian farming family of humble means and worked as a clerk for the Edison-Volta electric plant before turning to film—clearly inform his cinematic career. Perhaps most striking in this vein is the nostalgia that underlines his important film The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), for which he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (All the film’s actors were peasants with no previous acting experience.) But if this film revisited the spontaneous rhythms and humble textures characteristic of Neorealism (Visconti’s 1948 La terra trema stands as a notable precedent), Olmi’s work also increasingly engaged with aspects of cinematic modernism. The Circumstance (1974) ventured further in this direction than his other works, while still engaging with the theme of work (in this case, the consequences of industrialization on its bourgeois protagonists).

In Terra madre (2009), a documentary released this year that focuses on Italy’s so-called Slow Food movement, the octogenarian Olmi returns to a genre that informed his cinematic debut. (He incorporated aspects of documentary into his 1959 Time Stood Still, which considered the relationship between two laborers, one young and one old.) Whether in this final work or manifested in the environmental concerns of his 1993 narrative, The Secret of the Old Woods, Olmi has refused to recoil from the ideological and social concerns that shaped his earliest efforts. A fixture of Italy’s cinematic history and an industry outsider, Olmi stands as both emblematic of the Italian postwar film scene and exceptional to some of its fitful logics.

“Life’s Work: The Cinema of Ermanno Olmi” is showing at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) from September 25 to October 30. For more details, click here.