Saturday, January 31, 2015

Il Posto - Ermanno Olmi 1961

(The following is a comment from dcpfilm blog that ran long.)

Definitely concur on the greatness of Olmi's film and the centrality of innocence in it. I see it as a tale of innocence attenuated rather than lost, but attenuated in such a manner as to render the inviolable core of human dignity--here insulated by the callowness of youth--starkly conspicuous. That it does so without indicting the bureaucratic management of work-forces in the professional world as irredeemably degrading but merely as sad and arbitrary testifies to the sophistication of Olmi's neorealist calculation. He does not compose a tract on alienation, he simply points out, through the all-seeing gaze of his protagonist, what that mundane world looks like to a child. The wistful face of his protagonist--his main witness, so to speak--carries the entire film.  It is through the gaze of Sandro Panseri's improbably soulful eyes that the workplace world into which he steps disclosing itself to us. 

It's always vicious to argue the necessity of casting after the fact, a bit like attempting to justify any preference. One always presupposes what one seeks to demonstrate. Still, I can't help thinking Olmi's film would have been essentially different with, say, Jean-Pierre Léaud in the lead. Still powerful and insightful, but lacking the universality that the symmetry of Panseri's angelic features conveys. It is not just that they are pleasing in some taste-dependent manner; their geometry itself suggests a lawfulness of cosmic dispensation that compels all who have eyes to see--to silence. Our awe is the moment of transcendence. 

Such physical perfection feels almost incongruous in the world according to social realism, but it is precisely its other-worldliness that supports the witness function. While not entirely absent, that universality would have been less compelling with Léaud's ordinary plainness; it would have lacked the element of transcendence by the 'wholly other' that allows the gently degrading nature of quotidian professional life to impress itself upon us with such force. The particularity of his plainness would make him fractionally culpable; iterating one more dimension of flawed human nature rather than supervening upon its fallenness with the sudden illumination of divine incursion. We would have felt sympathy for Léaud, but with Panseri there is complete identification. Not to mention a subliminal sense of transport due to his sheer beauty--a rescuing beauty that, by rendering us inquisitive and awe-struck, draws us closer to the surface announcing the depths.This feat of transcendence through immanence is what allows Olmi to narrate in a lyrical first-person modality within a social-realist framing of the world. 

Panseri functions both as Olmi's alter-ego and as a 'cipher of transcendence' allowing us to vicariously relive our own emergence from proto-social innocence. In this regard, Il Posto's theme is really the transition from the realm of the family (exclusive preference), to the realm of civil society (discrimination and the interchangeability of social roles).

A propos Roma, Cita Aperta, Rossellini's film has a world-historical dimension, but also plenty of melodramatic augmentation, not to mention tendentious caricatures of Nazis that can only be called propagandistic, even if we condone them as morally apposite. The heightened theatrical mood seems appropriately 'realistic' given that his subject is the rare-to-unique confrontation with unalloyed evil (the Nazi's vs. the Catholics) amidst a world-conflagration; that is to say, with that which transcends the everyday reality neo-realism is at pains to distill. This theatricality sets Roma apart not just from Paisan and Germany, Year Zero, but from the general trend of social realist cinema. 

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