Wednesday, March 16, 2011

La commare secca

Based on a short story by Pier Paolo Pasolini, La commare secca was originally meant to be Pasolini's second feature after his debut Accattone; instead, the director went on to make Mamma Roma, handing the directorial reins of this project over to his young protege Bernardo Bertolucci. As a result, La commare secca became an uncharacteristic and uneven but promising debut for Bertolucci, then only 20 years old. It's a murder mystery, a Rashomon-like tale of conflicting testimonies told through the unreliable memories of various suspects and witnesses who were hanging around a particular park on the night that a prostitute was murdered. The opening credits establish the stakes, panning across a grassy field and eventually coming across the body of a woman lying on the ground. The camera focuses on a detail of her hand, stretched out in the grass, still and unmoving, locked into a freeze frame as the credits roll. The film is then structured around a series of interviews at police headquarters, as offscreen detectives ask questions of several men who were in the park near where the woman's body was found.

Each testimony circles back to the same day, recounting each man's activities throughout the day, most of these accounts structured around the pivot point of a rain storm, the recurrence of which — accompanied by the same simple image of a glass pane with rain droplets streaming down it — emphasizes the continuity of these stories, their overlapping time periods and different perspectives on the same stretch of time. None of these characters are especially interesting, and their stories are trite and familiar: a couple of would-be thugs trying to steal things from lovers in the park, a former thief (Alfredo Leggi) who now leeches off of his rich girlfriend (Gabriella Giorgelli) while seeing another girl on the side, a soldier (Allen Midgette) who wanders around doing nothing, a couple of poor kids who want to scrape together enough cash to impress some girls they like. The performances are inconsistent, too, with many of the actors affecting a hysterical, awkward stridency that makes the film unnecessarily shrill and amateurish.

This is especially true of the opening story, in which Nino (Giancarlo de Rosa) and his friends try to steal radios and baskets of food from picnicking lovers: Nino keeps shouting at the slightest provocation, as he first gets caught trying to grab a radio, then gets abandoned by his friends and must walk home alone in the dark. The thief Bostelli's segment is a conventional story of a no-good man who exploits his middle-aged girlfriend's desperation: he takes her money and buys fancy clothes and a nice car, living a lazy life without lifting a finger of his own. Bertolucci follows this pair around one afternoon as they try to collect on various debts from people who owe them money, and eventually Bostelli dumps Esperia and must deal with her enraged jealousy and attempts at revenge. The material is weak and insubstantial; the script treads over familiar ground, familiar character types, borrowing scenarios from American film noir (one obvious influence here) but not fleshing them out with the detail or emotional intensity of the best noirs. The result is that, in terms of story and characters, La commare secca is unfortunately generic.

In spite of this, the film is often enjoyable because Bertolucci lets the plot simply meander along its predictable course, while he focuses instead on smaller moments, quiet interludes, stretches where the characters just hang out, doing nothing, wasting time. Each of the stories has a sequence where a rain storm forces the characters to find shelter, and these moments are evocative and sensual, as the story is put on hold for a few minutes as the rain pours down, soaking the characters as they scramble for a place to rest and get dry. Bertolucci often brings a subtle neorealist's eye for the ordinary detail, the prosaic moment, to this murder mystery. The central story in each segment thus begins to seem less important than the pseudo-documentary observation of ordinary life. In one sequence, the soldier accosts girls on the street, flirting and trying to charm them, but only getting slapped and pushed away for his efforts. The whole scene plays out without any dialogue, and the cinematography has a loose, improvised quality to it, catching glimpses of the soldier's marks as they turn towards the camera then away, laughing or looking annoyed as they try to dance around the would-be lothario like he's just an obstacle in their path. Later, during the rain storm, the soldier finds shelter in a tunnel, and Bertolucci's camera gracefully pulls back in a long tracking shot down the tunnel, away from the soldier and away from the women and children who line the sides of the tunnel, also finding shelter from the rain. It's a beautiful shot, sensuous and mysterious, utterly unrelated to anything else, simply a graceful maneuver that exists for its own sake.

There's a similarly wonderful shot in the segment concerning the two young friends Pipito (Romano Labate) and Francolicchio (Alvaro D'Ercole), who are awkwardly wooing a pair of girls they see every day. In one scene, Francolicchio sings a love song while lying on his back on a wall, as his friend and the two girls are clustered around him, and Bertolucci's camera slowly zooms in on the face of the singer. Such moments perfectly capture the aimless time-wasting of youth, the sense of simply passing time, lounging around, joking and doing silly things, singing just for the hell of it. This segment in general is probably the film's strongest. The quartet subsequently visit the home of a slightly older woman, a friend of the girls, where they play records and dance, the girls dancing with each other because the guys are too awkward and shy to join in; they can only watch and crack jokes, whispering in each other's ears. The girls, in contrast, are self-assured and independent: they don't need the guys, and Bertolucci captures them dancing back and forth with one another, their steps carrying them off-camera and then back again.

Even this early in his career, at such a young age, shots and moments like this suggest that Bertolucci already possesses a distinctive, and perhaps instinctive, visual sensibility. The film's compositional aesthetic is balanced halfway between off-the-cuff neorealism and the carefully arranged compositions and fluid tracking shots that would define the director's later career. A devastating example of the latter is a quiet, distant tracking shot away from Pipito, who remains trapped on the river bank, standing still as the camera drifts away, after his friend Francolicchio disappears in the river: the camera metaphorically becomes the drowned boy, bobbing away from his friend. In the end, La commare secca is a promising if flawed debut, a film that captures Bertolucci already in transition towards the elegant, visually precise director he'd soon become.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Actually it's based on several episodes in Pasolini's Ragazzi di Vita. The look and feel of the film howeber is pure Bertolucci -- though no one could have seen it at the time. Pasolini was entirely commited to depicting the lievs of the lower classes in extremis. Bertolucci, being far more tied to his bourgeois roots than pasolini ever was, is far more interested in lsiding over the surfaces of things. He depicts the boys and the soldier as charming, and death as an unhappy event with not much of a sense of connection to lagrer issues or ideas. This is a failing at an immediate level, pherhaps. But it underscores hwere he was really headed, which hsi subsequrnt feature Before the Revolution makes clear.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, this film is in large measure 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 Bertolluci served up later in the decade. Obviously his mentor Pasolini's influence can be seen all through this film, especially with the roving camera.

Again a superlative review in this prolific run here at ONLY THE CINEMA.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, David and Sam. It's a problematic film, but definitely points the way forward to where he was heading, and how he already differed from Pasolini even while using his master's material and some of his style. Before the Revolution is quite a leap from this debut.

john said...

amazing blog, i've just landed in it.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, John, and welcome.