As if being unemployed in the current economy isn’t dehumanizing enough, I recently applied for two positions that required filling out long-form, bizzaro questionnaires. (Has the Facebookization of society now infected job hunting? Like, OMG, before we actually look at your resume or interview you, take this personality test; we’ll poke you if you pass, and you’ll totally LOL when you find out we’re hiring based on what Twilight character you are ;^) …)
One quiz featured outerdimensional math questions such as “What number comes next in this series: 2, 5, 13, 7, pi …” (huh?) while the other featured a mix of no-shades-of-gray queries like “True or False: I like to be in large crowds” (there was no space for responding that I enjoy attending sporting events and concerts, but try to avoid white supremacist rallies and Republican fundraisers … or are those last two the same thing?) and nebulous conundrums like “A client who is clearly angry approaches you and begins yelling. You: (a) Shout back (b) Call your manager (c) Smile, calmly apologize and offer to help (d) Call the police” (I submit that depending on what and how the client is yelling, any one of those could be a viable answer).
Instead of asking a few straightforward questions that might overtly reveal something about one’s diligence and individualism—like “Former employers and coworkers would consider your work ethic (a) Tireless (b) Coherent (c) Comatose” or “The greatest author of all time is (a) William Shakespeare (b) Dan ‘The White Albino’ Brown (c) That British woman who made millions off a pubescent wizard”—these exams snakily try to peg one’s hireability through a lengthy series of surreptitiously worded riddles all, apparently, in the name of keeping psychology majors gainfully employed.
It reminded me of a sequence from the great Italian film Il Posto—a sort of neorealist Office Space—which follows wide-eyed young Domenico (Sandro Panseri) as he pursues employment with a large, anonymous corporation in Milan.
Fresh out of school and putting college and life dreams on hold due to his family’s relative poverty, Domenico crams into a small office in the company’s massive headquarters, which is comprised of at least two buildings, and awaits a series of exams with dozens of other applicants. The tests, explains the administrator with more than a hint of knowing ambiguity, “are designed mainly to reveal your individual qualities.”
As the line of candidates is then ushered from one building to another, a man on the street asks what’s going on. “If we pass the test, we get a job,” Domenico reports.
“What will they think of next?” the man grumbles.
The testing begins with a math problem: A roll of copper wire is 520 meters long; three-quarters are cut off; of the remainder, another four-fifths are cut off. How many centimeters are left on the roll? (How answering this correctly qualifies a person as a typist or office messenger, the movie does not explain; although it does provide the solution to the question.)
The prospects are then asked a series of yes-or-no questions including “Does the opposite sex repulse you?” and “Do you often drink to forget your troubles?” Domenico stifles a chuckle at the former (having just courted a pretty job-seeker named Magali during the lunch break) and replies “sometimes” to the latter, eliciting a harsh reminder that the answer must be “yes” or “no.”
Domenico chooses not to further rail against the limitations and ludicrousness of the tests to the employer, passes them and is hired.
Directed and cowritten by Ermanno Olmi, Il Posto technically arrived more than a decade after the end of the neorealist movement, although it shares with those post-World War II films a focus on the working class, a concern with socioeconomic issues, location photography and a largely nonprofessional cast. And while Olmi doesn’t shy away from the harsher aspects of his characters’ reality, he also infuses the film with a deadpan sense of observational humor less prevalent in the works of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini.
Domenico’s parents are hard-working and caring, and his mother is frequently exasperated by typical sibling hostility. “These two are unbelievable, the way they fight,” she mutters just loud enough for her boys to hear (as mothers are prone to do). “Like cats and dogs. Not like brothers at all.”
The film also provides tangential glimpses into the habits and lives of Domenico’s coworkers; one cuts his cigarettes in half (and is bluntly stingy about sharing), one has his hair cut at home by his wife (reminding her to keep his sideburns), another lobs wads of paper across an aisle of desks into the trash (occasionally misfiring), while yet another has long since retired but keeps coming into the office anyway (the influence for Office Space’s Milton Waddams?).
Shy, softspoken and respectful away from home, Domenico is as alert as the film itself, and Il Posto is anchored by Panseri’s endearing performance. Perhaps the greatest of Il Posto’s many pleasures is the way it watches Domenico actively observing the world around him.
Domenico’s eyes are always moving, sizing up his surroundings, from the people in his neighborhood (where he feels comfortable enough to lose himself in romantic song) to the crowded train he quietly takes to work (on which he witnesses a mix of students, laborers and professionals) to the spacious hall where prospective employees are tested (and where the architecturally artistic domed ceiling and ornate light fixtures are lost on most) to the plush office of the administrative official who will ultimately decide in what department Domenico will work (and who is strategically positioned in a high-back chair towering above his visitors).
His ears are also attentive, as when, during their brief lunch break courtship, he and Magali gaze through the window of a fine clothing store; she mentions she likes the trenchcoat with “lots of buttons and belts.” The coat initially proves too expensive for Domenico’s mother on their preliminary shopping trip, but after an early payday, he is shown wearing the button- and belt-bedecked coat and checking himself out in a bathroom mirror; a coworker sarcastically comments that Domenico looks like an SS officer.
Despite being immersed in the daily drudgery and exposed to the gripes of longtime employees, Domenico retains a hopeful spirit, buoyed by his affection for Magali, who is out there somewhere in the vast hive of buzzing drones and who promises to meet him at the company’s New Year’s party. He arrives to a crowd of two older employees, and is greeted at the door with a bottle: “Each man should have a lady. Or, if he’s alone, a bottle of wine.”
Like life, Il Posto has moments of bittersweetness and even sorrow. But even those somber moments are, also like life, tempered with levity and possibility (after a deceased employee’s goods are sorted—“Personal, company, personal…”—there is a battle between veteran coworkers to move up a few rows and claim the vacated desk).
Death opens a door in the bureaucracy for Domenico, but his expression in the film’s final shot, with a ditto machine drumming in the background, makes me wonder how long he will keep what his father describes as “a job for life.”
Note: The Criterion Collection’s beautifully restored DVD release of Il Posto also contains La Cotta (The Crush), a short film Olmi made for Italian television in 1967 and a genuine gem. The movie bills itself as “A True Story That Could Be A Fairytale” and opens with the winsome line, “Once upon a time, a few weeks ago, there was a boy called Andrea…” The teenage Andrea is a would-be lothario (“Let’s say 16,” he slyly responds when girls correctly peg his age as 15) who is more romantically inclined than his targets. Amid a mixed-gender gathering at a friend’s house, Andrea finds a movie camera and says they should film “a love story”; the girls, however, want to make a mystery and a police drama. Over the course of a failed New Year’s Eve date (a holiday in which Olmi again finds plaintive poetry), Andrea learns a little something about love and viewers learn, via the older sister of a friend, what those other girls are missing.