Famous Firsts: The Grim Reaper (La commare secca, 1961)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Screen debut of: Bernardo Bertolucci, director and screenwriter

By Marilyn Ferdinand

At the unripe age of 21, Bernardo Bertolucci made his directorial debut with a film Pier Paolo Pasolini lost interest in making after he had started work on Mamma Roma (1962), only his second directorial effort. Of course, Pasolini had been writing for the cinema for some time, so his acquaintance with the mechanics of movie-making weren’t entirely casual—not like Bertolucci, who first stepped onto a movie set when Pasolini took the young man on as a production assistant when shooting Accattone (1961). Until that time, Bertolucci had been following in the footsteps of his father, the renowned poet Attilio Bertolucci. Pasolini talked to the producer of La commare secca, Antonio Cervi, and suggested that Bertolucci work with Sergio Citti, Pasolini’s frequent collaborator, to come up with a script. Cervi eventually handed Bertolucci the directing reins with the instruction to make it “Pasoliniano”—in the manner of Pasolini. Despite Bertolucci’s attempts to put his own stamp on the film, “Pasoliniano” is how the Italian press categorized it. Nonetheless, La commare secca is a formidable debut from a real film greenhorn that reveals a lush visual eye Bertolucci attributed to his poetic sensibilities.

La commare secca is a murder mystery that resembles Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), relying on the recollections of witnesses—in this case, various young men who may have been involved in the death of a prostitute—to tell the story. This style is a reversal of the usual narrative style of focusing on the detective as he or she moves around town interviewing people, looking for clues, and so forth. This strategy affords the viewer several advantages—we can tell when the actual memory does not match up with what the interviewee is telling the police and we get to see the actual murder through the mind’s eye of the killer, which a cop never can.

Bertolucci adds a poetic touch by imagining the movements of the victim as she wakes up from an afternoon nap, makes coffee, and gets dressed for her evening stroll. Even the discovery of her body at the opening of the film is treated with delicacy—the same classical guitar music that attends her movements during the film plays as the camera follows some pieces of torn newspaper off a bridge and into the open field near the Tiber River where she lies face down. A close-up reveals a pretty ring on her finger and chipped nail polish, marking her as shabby genteel. We can’t be sure that she’s a prostitute until a cop in an interrogation room says so to a cocky young man he is questioning. The young man’s recounting of his movements that day will form the first of several vignettes that offer a look at the daily goings-on in Rome’s underbelly that will form the real text of this film.

Our first suspect, Canticchia (Francesco Ruiu), is unemployed. He tells the cop that he went to meet two priests for a letter of recommendation for work; in fact, he’s a thief who met two friends with whom he roams the woods looking for lovers who aren’t watching their belongings. Bertolucci follows their restless prowling through a wooded area that has become Rome’s lovers lane, watching them take turns creeping up on the distracted couples, succeeding and failing at their thievery. Eventually, Bertolucci brings Canti to the point where all the suspects converge—a park where the prostitute was last seen alive. In what resembles a night constellation, a soldier is bent forward sleeping on a bench, three men stand conversing, and in the distance, like the North Star, the prostitute (Wanda Rocci) stands under a light, her large, patent-leather purse glimmering softly.

Bertolucci spends a good deal of time on the stories of each of these men, and of several, like Canti, who pass through the park and particularly, their relationship to women. The two teenagers, Francolicchio (Alvaro D’Ercole) and Pipito (Romano Abate), who are talking to the third man (Silvio Laurenzi)—a crucial player in the resolution of the murder—are romantic and foolish, thinking they will rob the man of his solid-gold cigarette lighter so they can raise the 2,000 lira they need to buy groceries for a meal their two girls and their friend will cook the next night. Pipito is timid, terrified by the interrogation and anxious about the fate of his friend, who jumped into the fast-moving Tiber to avoid capture.

Francolicchio and Pipito are the least loathsome of the men whose stories Bertolucci tells. Teodoro, the soldier (Allen Midgette), harasses women as they pass down a street, trying to get them to talk to him. He stops at an art gallery and caresses the center of a metal statue that looks like a woman’s spread legs. When he escapes from the sudden thunderstorm that plagues all of the characters, he hides under a bridge and is soon joined by a bevy of women trying to stay dry. His smile, more like a leer, shows his delight at this turn of events.

The longest and most annoying story is of 30ish Natalino (Renato Trioni), a two-timing leech who lives with a very unpleasant and violent madam name Esperia (Gabriella Giorgelli) and her equally unpleasant mother (Santina Lisio). He takes her money and buys himself a sportscar, cheats on her, makes the rounds with her as she collects her cut from her whores, and confiscates a puppy from one who can’t pay Esperia what she owes. Natalino is pretty much a complete waste of space, and the shouting and threats and stereotypical Italian “love” match made me wish Bertolucci had cut it from the too-long film.

Despite Bertolucci’s lengthy digressions into real life, he doesn’t forget the event that brings all these characters together. The murder is a very affecting scene, injected with a strangely hard-edged pathos as the prostitute lays down on the concrete retaining wall next to the river, turning her head to one side, looking like an unattractive side of meat not wishing to see what will happen next. Her stunned pleading at the feet of her killer quite reminded me of Nancy’s murder in Oliver Twist, and yet the entire scene is short and perfunctory, not bathetic.

There are images in this film that point to Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist: two girls dancing together, the murder, the concrete retainers on the Tiber looking as monumentally ugly as the fascist constructions of Mussolini’s Rome. Bertolucci said that he wanted a peripatetic camera to contrast with Pasolini’s static, full-frontal shots in imitation of Tuscan religious art, and indeed, the camera’s motion gives a feeling of teeming life in this crowded capital city to contrast with the bombed-out locations where a lot of the action takes place. The desperate landscape and lives attest to the continued hardships recorded in the neorealist works of Rossellini and Fellini, and Bertolucci certainly owes much to their visions in this first film. The story, however, is so “Pasoliniano,” including explicit and veiled references to homosexuality, that the director delivered what his producer wanted, in spite of his best efforts to make this story his own. Nonetheless, hybrid of styles though it is, La commare secca signals the promise of Bertolucci’s eventual mastery as a film director.


  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    21st/04/2011 to 12:46 pm

    “There are images in this film that point to Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist: two girls dancing together, the murder, the concrete retainers on the Tiber looking as monumentally ugly as the fascist constructions of Mussolini’s Rome. ”

    Indeed Marilyn! A number of critics considered this a failure, but it shows enough of Bertolucci’s talent to launch him to directorial stardom in the following years. As a murder who-done it we know the identity of the killer early on, and it’s little more than pedestrian on that level. As you note it’s always been compared to Kurosawa’s RASHOMON through the structural underpinnings, (and the examination of the nature of truth)and there are some buffo individual sequences like the ‘floating newspaper settling on the dead prostitute’ at the opening, which yields some arresting poetic imagery. As a neorealist observation, ‘day-in-the-life’ style of Italians it’s far more interesting, and it serves as an appetizer for the elaborate meals Bertollucci served up later in the decade. Obviously his mentor Pasolini’s influence can be seen all through this film, especially with the roving camera. I like that recall of the killing of Nancy in OLIVER TWIST too.

    Fabulous review of an important work.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/04/2011 to 2:15 pm

    Sam – We don’t know the killer’s identity until the end, so I can’t say that there was no suspense. There was the feeling of dread with each cut back to the prostitute that rather reminded me of Stuart Cooper’s Overlord, and that kept me engaged at a more serious level. As for the camera movements, Bertolucci said in the interview on the Criterion DVD that this was in direct contradiction to Pasolini’s static religious iconography in Accatone, so I’m not sure what you’re referring to here. I don’t think this work was a failure, just in need of a little editing. I wasn’t thrilled with the voice dubbing either – too strident in many parts.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    21st/04/2011 to 5:20 pm

    Marilyn, you may have misunderstood me here.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE this film!!!!!!

    I made reference to critics, and what they said to embellish the discussion.

    I DO NOT agree with them. I asserted that on the one level it was ordinary, but on the far more important ones it is excellent.

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