La Commare Secca: The Criterion Collection
The debut feature of a then twenty-one year old Bernardo Bertolucci, La Commare Secca ("The Grim Reaper," 1962) brims with brilliant flourishes that buoy an otherwise banal riff on Rashomon suggested by the director's parable-crazed mentor, Pier Paolo Pasolini. The flashback-heavy narrative is built around five suspects' differing perspectives on the murder of a prostitute in Rome, with the twist being that each character's voiceover testimony is being proven false by the visual recreation of their day that it accompanies. First up is a petty thief who stalks a wooded area frequented by canoodling lovers, purloining purses and wallets as the couples lose themselves in lascivious splendor. Secondly, there is a remorseless and cowardly pimp who lets his fiancé boss him about from one working girl to another in order to collect a debt. When one of his whores comes up short, he devastates her by taking her puppy as collateral. Next, there is a lonely soldier trawling the boulevard for companionship and winding up sleepy and jilted on a park bench. The soldier identifies a mysterious man in clogs, who winds up being the fourth suspect. Finally, there is a young man who recalls a day spent with his best friend and their two kinda-sorta girlfriends, which ends with their running out to pick up a dinner for which they have no cash. The investigation eventually turns back to the guiltiest looking of the lot, the man in the clogs, because a) his story his riddled with inconsistencies and b) he wears clogs. The story is as uninteresting as it sounds, but Bertolucci enlivens it with one cleverly conceived sequence after another. Take, for instance, the opening, which starts as a low-angle shot of an overpass; the roar of an engine is heard approaching, and, as it whisks by, Piero Piccioni's melancholy score kicks in, and a flurry of paper debris is scattered over the precipice and onto the weedy overgrowth below where a woman's body the prostitute has been discarded with just as little thought. Like many young directors, Bertolucci is in love with the tracking shot, an ardor that has little to do with serving the story and everything to do with showing off his technical ability. In each of the five flashbacks, there is a downpour from which the characters are forced to take refuge, and it's here that Bertolucci does some wonderful work contrasting the play of light off the rain with the dark cubby holes his dramatis personae have been forced into. This is all the more impressive considering that Bertolucci's cinematographer, Gianni Narzisi, was also collecting his first credit on the film and would go on to a short, undistinguished career; ergo, stylistically, this really was Bertolucci's show. Also stunning is the manner in which the director calls back Piccioni's main theme in the penultimate scene not at the moment of the coup de grâce, but at the moment the prostitute realizes her assailant plans to administer more than a beating. The effect is genuinely chilling. But remarkably polished as the film is, it's still lacking in thematic heft and purpose, which is probably why Bertolucci's far more profound sophomore effort, Before the Revolution (1964), would be the one that announced him as one of his generation's greatest talents. The Criterion Collection presents La Commare Secca in a fantastic anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) with solid monaural Dolby Digital audio. Extras are relegated to a lucid and informative, recently conducted interview with Bertolucci (16 min.) and a new essay from critic David Thompson. Keep-case.