Thursday, October 10, 2013

Kafka (and Hrabal) in Italy: Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto

Let me say right from the get-go that the kid in Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (played by Sandro Panseri) looks like a young Franz Kafka.  Whether or not this is by design, I can’t say, but it was impossible to watch the movie without seeing him as Kafka.  Having said that, there are a number of ways in which this 1961 film feels Kafkaesque specifically and Czech in general.

Olmi’s hero is a not particularly bright young man named Domenico who is seeking a position at a big company in Milan (the name and nature of which are never mentioned).  We follow him through the application process, as a bunch of awkward would-be job applicants are weeded out, we follow his abortive romance with fellow applicant Antonietta, and then we see him settle into the actual job, which turns out to be assistant messenger (he was trying to be a clerk, but they apparently didn’t actually need new clerks).  All the while, as he gets pushed around, he utters not a peep of complaint (even Kafka’s heroes could complain from time to time); to a certain extent, he is like an Italian(er) Michael Cera (I’m assuming “Cera” is Italian), passive and hoping for nothing more than to disappear unnoticed into the background.

The Czech New Wave, which kicked off a few years after the release of Il Posto, produced a number of movies about the absurdity of work that all seem to hearken back to Olmi’s film.  One is reminded especially of Jiri Menzel’s adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains (1966), about a young nitwit not unlike Domenico who gets a job at a train station and reveals his naïveté at every term.  There is also Miloš Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball (1967), in which the titular ball plays out with the absurdity and laughable self-seriousness that we see in the New Year’s party with which Il Posto reaches its climax (if a movie like this can really be said to possess a climax).
The heroes of Czech New Wave cinema are small people pursuing small-scale ambitions.  Like young Domenico, they’re merely trying to find a foothold, however miniscule, within the system.  Their positions are far too tentative and insignificant for the notion of challenging the system to ever rear its head.  In this respect, these are cruel cautionary tales for the young people of my generation.  I am reminded of a short poem by the late Harold Pinter: “Warning / The pricks are out and they’re fucking everything in sight / Watch your back.”

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