La Commare secca [DVD]
Director : Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay : Bernardo Bertolucci & Sergio Citti (story by Pier Paolo Pasolini)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1962
Stars : Carlotta Barilli (Serenella), Lorenza Benedetti (Milly), Clorinda Celani (Soraya), Vincenzo Ciccora (Mayor), Alvaro D'Ercole (Francolicchio), Giancarlo De Rosa (Nino), Gabriella Giorgelli (Esperia), Romano Labate (Pipito), Alfredo Leggi (Bostelli), Santina Lisio (Esperia's mother), Allen Midgette (Teodoro), Ada Peragostini (Maria), Emy Rocci (Domenica), Wanda Rocci (Prostitute)
A little more than a decade before the notorious masterpiece Last Tango in Paris (1972) guaranteed his place in cinema history, Bernardo Bertolucci was a 20-year-old assistant to legendary writer/poet/filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. The next year, he was literally handed the reins of his directorial debut, La Commare secca (The Grim Reaper), which Pasolini had originally written and intended to direct, but set aside to concentrate on Mamma Roma (1962).
Working from Pasolini's story, Bertolucci (who had already published an award-winning book of poetry) and cowriter Sergio Citti (who had cowritten Pasolini's debut, 1961's Accattone) took the framework of a thriller and used it as a ploy to examine the lives of various characters in the lower rungs of the Italian social ladder. Thus, La Commare secca is less about its story than it is about the social environment of its characters. Surprisingly, this is what the film's backers wanted, as Accattone, the tragic and darkly social aware story of a pimp in Rome, had been a huge critical success and they wanted something else in the same vein.
The story's lynchpin is a dead prostitute, whose body is found by the banks of a river beneath a highway overpass. The police begin interviewing suspects, mainly people who were walking through a park near where the body was found the night before. Each character is brought in for an interview to dutifully relate what he did that day (although the stories that are told and the flashbacks we see don't always correspond). The interrogators remain completely off-screen, with only their voices directing the suspects, which puts the focus entirely on those being questioned. These include a hotheaded young thief (a street kid, a member of the "ragazzi di vita"), a lonely soldier, a former thief who now moochs off his vicious pimp of a girlfriend, a waiter, and a couple of randy teenagers who were picking up on girls in the park. Each of them stands in for some aspect of the lower stratum of postwar Italian society, particularly in the way they are all just barely scraping by.
In this respect, La Commare secca is an intriguing film, although it is never deeply engrossing. The characters are interesting enough, and Bertolucci's neorealist-inspired look at their lived experiences carries a charge of genuine authenticity. The use of nonprofessional actors and, even more importantly, location work, adds immensely to the film's sense of realism. However, unlike true neorealist films, Bertolucci makes some attention-grabbing aesthetic choices, particularly his use of a constantly roving camera (there are several long dolly shots that are particularly impressive given his lack of experience as a filmmaker). Bertolucci's lyrical sensibilities are most evident in the film's dreamlike opening imagery, in which bits of newspaper are blown off a highway overpass and mingle amid the blades of grass that partially hide the prostitute's body.
La Commare secca has been frequently compared to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), but the similarities of the two films are fleeting. They both use multiple narrators, but in Rashomon they were telling wildly conflicting versions of the same story, whereas in La Commare secca, each narrator's story is his own, and they overlap only in the park where the characters crossed paths. The film doesn't take as its subject the nature of truth itself; rather, it has a far less ambitious goal in documenting several briefly intersecting lives as a way of giving a brief portrait of a particular social class. In this sense, the film works quite well, although it falls far short of being gripping or emotionally powerful. More than anything, it is a curiosity piece, a first effort from an extraordinary filmmaker who would go on to much greater things.
|La commare secca Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 1, 2005|
|La Commare secca was recently restored in Italy and is available for the first time on DVD. This Criterion disc boasts a new high-definition anamorphic transfer in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio made from the 35mm fine-grain master positive. The black and white image is somewhat low in contrast, with grays predominating over sharp blacks and whites. The image is clean, having been digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System, although it retains a slightly rough look, which is typical of neorealist-inspired films of the 1950s and 1960s.|
|The original monaural soundtrack, transferred from the optical soundtrack positive, has been digitally restored, as well, and sounds excellent for its age. Dialogue and sound effects are crisp and clear, and there is no ambient hiss to be found.|
|The only supplement on the disc is a 15-minute video interview with director Bernardo Bertolucci that was recorded in 2003. In it, Bertolucci discusses his work with Pasolini and how he came to make La Commare secca even though he was only 21 years old and had no filmmaking experience.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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