Unlike the neorealist masterpieces that came before it, Ermanno Olmi's second film might easily be passed over as insignificant - a small movie about common people where nothing much happens rather than a revolutionary statement about film's ability to magnify the human condition (and Hollywood's inability - or rather unwillingness - to fulfill this promise). In many ways, Olmi was able to avoid such sweeping statements because of the path those previous films by people like De Sica, Rossellini, and De Santis blazed. By the time Olmi made Il Posto in 1961, their uniquely Italian vision had been translated into countless other languages, inspiring the creation of humanist cinematic voices all over the world and establishing a powerful counterpoint to a Hollywood that had dominated global cinema since World War II. The statement was already made, the language already established.
Rather than make Il Posto seem superfluous, this foundation allows Olmi to focus on the task at hand. The film tells a simple story of a boy from a small town traveling to Milan to get work. I could explain more about his journey, but that would imply that there is more to the story rather than a richness of character and experience that cannot be described. Because Olmi avoids the trappings of allegories and social metaphors, his film can be both contained and extremely powerful - not because it says something about society (though it very much does) but because the open emotion of Olmi's protagonist and the simplicity of his story make it easy to understand what he's experiencing and to sympathize with him.
Empathy is not lacking in Bicycle Thieves or any other neorealist classic. But - and maybe this is just my personal opinion - those films featured empathy from above, a sense that we must all be there to help the common man, to honor him, to acknowledge his struggle. Olmi isn't interested in helping his protagonist. He's interested in knowing him, loving him even. It is subjective distance that separates Olmi's film from his predecessors', and the intimacy with which he depicts his character's every movement makes Il Posto a truly great film.