Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Those leaping to get a glimpse at celebrated auteur Bernardo Bertolucci's first film should be
forewarned that it's less a masterpiece than sort of a dry run for a tyro director trying his
wings. Like all the new Italian directors of the late 50s and early 60s, the 21 year-old
Bertolucci bounces his particular sensibility off of neorealism, and stages and shoots
with a specific poetic stylization in mind. Today's film hopefuls looking for inspiration are likely
to think that the director's ideas and even his approach aren't very imaginative, but Bertolucci
has made an interesting movie out of very limited resources.
A score of suspects in the canal-side murder of a prostitute offers alibi
testimony for the day of the killing to unseen inquisitors. Most claim complete innocence while
flashbacks reveal them to be involved in petty but unrelated criminal activity - purse snatching,
etc. A final clue leads the police back to the guilty party.
As a mystery, La commare secca is definitely lacking. The unfolding of clues is purposely
unexciting and the eventual uncovering of the culprit an anticlimax. Working from a story idea
by his mentor Pier Paolo Pasolini, first-time director Bertolucci goes in a personal poetic direction
of his own, one that had to be commercially risky even in Italy's art-driven film world of the
early sixties. The slowly moving story is really a series of barely-touching vignettes of varying
interest. The purse snatcher is an immature weakling. Another suspect is a haughty gigolo living
off the earnings of prostitutes. He remains impassive under the scorn of his main girl, a harpy
that provides him with a sports car but keeps him like a bought dog. Together they hold one
non-paying streetwalker's pet dog for ransom. The third suspect is a witless soldier harassing
women on a day off in Rome, and a later pair of boys are trying to find ways to take their girlfriends
on a dinner date without any funds.
All of these episodes stand alone as well-drawn character sketches or visual exercises. The
thread uniting them is a common rain storm, at which time Bertolucci cuts back to the victim-to-be
rising from her bed to clean up, and looks out of her rainy window. The back-winding time structure
affinity with Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and the dishonest testimony reminds us of
Rashomon even though there's
no ambiguity to Bertolucci's flashbacks, the visual component of which tells the truth. The various
suspects all come together in a park where some contemplate crimes while others just try to get
At 21 Bertolucci seems already determined to do what it takes to be a distinctive filmmaker. The
camera hardly ever stops moving, searching for interesting visuals when not directly telling a
story. This helps when the narrative leans toward aimlessness. It also lends an illusion of
interrelatedness to the isolated men in the nighttime park, unaware that they will be linked to a
crime. When the killing itself occurs, it seems an obligation rather than the central event. Although
the portraits of young Romans are convincing and vivid, La commare secca doesn't involve
us deeply in the problems of its characters - that moving camera keeps us emotionally aloof, perhaps.
We're more likely to remember the casual venality and irresponsibility of the six or so young men
Criterion's DVD of La commare secca gives us another rare movie in an optimum presentation.
Critic David Thompson's insert essay offers an objective critique while Bertolucci's video
interview brings us the complete story straight from its personable (and extremely intelligent)
director. He seems to have been the fair-haired son of a famous poet taken under the wing of another
poet (Pasolini) immersed in the film world, but obviously somebody was impressed enough to put
Bertolucci in charge of his own feature. It's a solid first effort and the perfect 'director's film':
no stars, no commercial hook.
The title has been translated as The Grim Reaper and critic Thompson identifies the quote
from a poetic reference that depicts that mythical figure. But the actual words "commare
secca" apparently mean "skinny gossip." One of Pasolini's key qualities was to introduce street
dialects into Italian films, so this confusion seems appropriate - my wife, an Italian scholar, had
a hard time recognizing some of the dialogue.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La commare secca rates:
Supplements: Interview with director Bernardo Bertolucci, Essay by film critic
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 30, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson