White Collars and Lost Spoons in Il Posto By Jef Burnham. Lunchtime in Milan. Cafeterias fill with workers vying for plates of spaghetti. Then off to a coffee shop for a quick caffeine boost before hustling back to work...

Lunchtime in Milan. Cafeterias fill with workers vying for plates of spaghetti. Then off to a coffee shop for a quick caffeine boost before hustling back to work. Amidst the chaos of the midday rush, Domenico Cantoni (Sandro Panseri), a young man from the suburb of Meda, visits a coffee shop with a local girl and drops his teaspoon on the floor. Although the loss of a spoon is not significant unto itself, the disappearance of this particular tiny spoon amongst a throng of busy feet prefigures the very fate of the young man who dropped it. For at the conclusion of Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961), Domenico finds himself lost in the shuffle of the Milanese business world, relegated to a career which promises to fill the remainder of his days with tedium.

Unlike the spoon, however, which may be picked up, washed off, and once again fulfill its potential, all indications point toward a future characterized by persistent isolation and disappointment for Domenico, not only the business world, but in his private life as well. Consider, for instance, Beethoven’s "Für Elise," another lonely piece within the film which appears only once on the soundtrack and is, in fact, the only piece of music in the film that is not specifically qualified diegetically. The fading in and out of the music as Domenico and the local girl, Antonietta (Loredana Detto), walk down the streets of Milan might indicate that they pass by the music’s origin, but director Ermanno Olmi never specifically directs the viewer to it. "Für Elise" underscores an otherwise immensely promising exchange for Domenico in his relationship with Antonietta, thereby foreshadowing that his affections for the girl will go unrequited at the film’s conclusion. Moreover, Beethoven supposedly composed the piece after a lover spurned his marriage proposal, further reinforcing Domenico’s inevitable failure with Antonietta by association.

Ultimately, these prophetic subtexts hold true as Antonietta fades into a much larger group of people from whom Domenico finds himself alienated: his coworkers. When Domenico arrives at the New Year’s Eve party thrown by the nameless company for which he works, he is but the fourth person in attendance after a middle-aged couple and an old man. In a long shot, emphasizing the bareness of the vast hall, Domenico sits at a distance from the other attendees; tiny, obscured and alone at a table for six. The couple, who sits but a few tables away, smiles and invites him to join them, however, they do so not out of kindness but to gain access to his wine. He is welcomed by others only so long as he has something to offer them.

Throughout the New Year’s Eve sequence, Olmi visually divorces Domenico from his coworkers even in moments that find him in direct physical contact with them. One such moment occurs near the end of the sequence when Domenico immerses himself in the fervor of the dance floor, no doubt drunk from imbibing his wine. Domenico makes actual physical contact with his coworkers, engaging in a sort of conga line on the dance floor. Although he is but one of many on the floor, the camera tellingly singles him out in close-up. The shot appears to depict Domenico’s elation at having finally been assimilated into the group. However, the close-up revealingly features Domenico alone, either absenting the other attendees from the frame entirely or rendering them out of focus and barely discernible in the background. Their separation from the protagonist visually indicates that their enjoyment of the event is somehow separate from Domenico’s. They can touch and be touched and yet make no connection with one another save for the superficial, physical one. Olmi thus situates the employees of the company as wholly insular beings just as Domenico begins to develop a sense of belonging.

Domenico is ultimately no different. So insular is he that his isolation extends beyond his relationships with Antonietta and his coworkers and into the family realm. Even among his fellow Cantonis, Domenico stands alone. Olmi reveals Domenico’s separation from his family to be cyclically caused by and resulting in his employment at the company, thereby further centralizing the titular posto narratively. The job positions Domenico in sharp class contrast with his own father, evidenced in their respective apparel. As Millicent Marcus points out in her essay "Olmi’s Il Posto: Discrediting the Economic Miracle," "While Domenico wears the fancy new trench coat which amounts to a kind of trademark of white-collar elegance[...], his father wears the short jacket and beret of the working classes" (214).

Additionally, whereas Domenico’s white-collar status might have positioned him as a paragon among the Cantonis, his employment does not represent the height of his family’s social ambitions, since his younger brother Franco is being groomed for the even better position to which further schooling will entitle him (at his older brother’s expense). When questioned by the boss about why he quit school to come to work, Domenico explains "I have a little brother..." suggesting that it is Franco who will take the family’s potential for social mobility to its highest realization. (Marcus 214)

In this, his family aims to insure that Franco and future generations of Cantonis achieve higher social status than either Domenico or his blue-collar father have, and they do so by exploiting Domenico.

As such, Domenico’s future is not his own. He is but an agent of his brother Franco’s ascent into the upper classes; condemned to a life of perpetual stasis and isolation. This positions Domenico as something of an intergenerational bridge for the Cantonis. Though the rest of the family rises, he remains fixed. With his employment at the company, Domenico has reached a plateau in his life that will define him from his adolescence to his final days. Whereas the spoon he lost in the coffee shop was part of a set, and may be reunited with its kin by an employee or a kindly patron, Domenico will forever stand apart from his family, coworkers, and the girl he admires. Like the pages churned out by the office mimeograph, every day in the company’s clerical department until his demise will be exactly the same as he clacks the time away toward the inevitable empty desk.

Back to Issue 17