We see these faces throughout La Commare Secca, the remarkable first film from celebrated Oscar winning director Bernardo Bertolucci. In an oeuvre packed with startling successes (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor) this complicated, considered crime story is one of his forgotten masterworks. Focusing on a particularly vicious killing, and the impact it has on the people who were present on the night in question, the filmmaker fashions a story that is part 'by the book' investigation, part lyrical look at life within the lower echelons of Rome, and part study in individual reactions. The results confirm the truth about the effect of a homicide. After the body has been removed and the crime scene explored, it is time to discover the connections to the killer. La Commare Secca gives us a chance to watch the permanent impairment of individual reputation, and demonstrates that even the most innocent man is eternally tainted by being considered in legion with the Grim Reaper.
Luciano the petty thief: walking through the park where the prostitute was last seen, he claims to have been out looking for a job. But we witness how he takes advantage of couples at a local lover's lane, and pays a steep price for his indiscretion.
La Commare Secca is a movie about misdirection. It's a tale told from many different vantage and viewpoints, all leading up to one uncomfortable, unconscionable fact. It's a red herring wrapped inside several mesmerizing vignettes, a recounting of a crime that really offers no clear clues. By the end, we understand who killed the prostitute whose body was found face down near the Tiber River. But as with most other elements in this surprisingly audacious first film from moviemaking legend Bernardo Bertolucci, the motives in La Commare Secca are unclear, the reasons for things ambiguous and vague. Clearly inspired by Rashomon in its narrative construction, and fashioned from an idea by infamous cinematic icon Pier Paolo Pasolini (responsible for reinventing Italian neo-realism with films like Accatone and Mamma Roma) Bertolucci has built a film that juxtaposes life against death, light against dark, class against class, all to consider the true nature and impact of crime on individual lives. The results are starkly realistic as well as romantically expressive.
The premise is simple, as is the crime. A whore has been murdered, and the police are interrogating the potential witnesses and suspects. Since no one expects the truth from someone questioned under pressure, Bertolucci uses his camera as the ultimate authenticator of fact. As the detainees discuss their whereabouts on the day in question, we leave the stark setting of the police station (really nothing more than a single chair against a bleak stone wall) and enter into one of several telltale flashbacks. Bertolucci uses the device to great effect all throughout La Commare Secca, illustrating how the truth is stretched or hidden for varying reasons. A purse snatching tough wants to avoid remembering when he was confronted by a couple who didn't appreciate his petty thievery (as well as a gang of sinister skinheads), so he makes up a lie about getting a job. Yet even as he spins his far fetched yarn, we witness the humiliation and humbling, the fear and the folly. The look of wounded pride that pours off this characters face also helps us in our detective work. No one this unnerved by a few face slaps has the ability to kill in cold blood. He can barely stand up for himself, let alone steal with effectiveness.
Then there is the ex-con, Bustelli that lies about his new life on the straight and narrow. He's really the kept man of a nagging, ranting madam. He lives the high life, with fancy clothes and new cars, as long as he provides the muscle, and the machismo, that this hateful hag so desperately craves. Again, without the backbone to face the bitch, to rid her from his life and take responsibility for himself once and for all, his capability of committing the crime is also questioned. From the soldier whose adventures in Rome are more tourist than tryst oriented, to Pipito the teenager whose false bravado may have cost a friend his life, everyone has something to hide in La Commare Secca's narrative. But it's not just the fear of prosecution that fuels these lies. Bertolucci is using this device to show the fuzzy, formless nature of police work and the human heart.
Unlike television shows or modern Hollywood whodunits where clues are seemingly lined up, just waiting for the discovery and the denouncement, this film argues that it's hunches and hints, slips of the tongue and constant follow-ups that represent the vast majority of law enforcement leg work. Though the ability to read people and know when they are dishonest is key to crime solving, it's the constant prodding for information, and the re-questioning and repetition that disclose the true causes of death. Several times, the film's unseen police officer insists that a story be retold, or a sequence be walked through again, just so that the facts or lack thereof being offered by the speaker can be graded and analyzed. In these scenes, Bertolucci does a masterful job of getting his novice actors to evoke the proper attitude. The ex or current criminals have smooth, almost mannered ways in which they respond. The innocent or intimidated are more nervous, lacking the control to keep their anxiety closed in and concealed. Like the anonymous officer, we begin to get a bead on who may or may not have had something to do with the prostitute's murder, and the satisfaction of guessing right is part of La Commare Secca's power.
But there is another element at play, one that is more universal and less linked to the investigation of offenses. Human nature is based in the lie, either to the outside world or to one's self. No one tells the entire truth. We all live lives based partially in fallacies that we build up and around ourselves. In each story told, the characters are lying, either to themselves or to the authorities, and their idealized or romanticized view is channeled through Bertolucci's all knowing and all seeing camera. As a result, we begin to understand how, similar to the prostitute but in a much less violent and final manner, everyone involved in this investigation is a victim. They are all lying to themselves. The petty thief is a victim of his own wounded pride, the soldier of his apparent disengagement from the world. The ex-con can't escape the criminal life, and the youth just wants to live, love and be happy. But they all meet miserable ends, shown the true nature of existence by situations and circumstances conspiring to undermine them.
Set against the everyday legitimacy of the Q&A, along with the reality based vignettes explaining what actually happened, Bertolucci strives for some fanciful, artistic moments within this documentary-like movie. Indeed, La Commare Secca is a constant battle between artifice and authenticity. The opening shot prepares us for this idealistic approach, as a newspaper/magazine tossed from an overhead highway breaks apart and flutters, like evocative evidence to a case, among the grasses and weeds along the underpass. As the camera catches certain sheets, we follow them as they blow and twist inside the breeze. Eventually, they come to rest on the motionless corpse of the dead prostitute who is lying there as if merely sleeping. But as the pages blow onto and around her, we see that her rest is far more eternal, and the tragedy of the image resonates with visual power.
As a director, Bertolucci uses this kind of fascinating false facet constantly to paint in the details of his drama. Talking and interrogation are not going to provide symbols of the social fringe (after all, the whore is just like the garbage collecting at her feet, right?) or themes about human nature, so the director attempts to create atmosphere and accents with his flowing, fervent shots. The camera is always on the move in La Commare Secca, taking us from one point to another, as if leading us by the hand, down the side streets and across the abandoned fields of Rome. We walk with and as the characters, learning what they learn in incremental, interesting ways. Bertolucci's lens constantly pushes the narrative toward its tragic end, never letting us dwell in the beauty or bask in the reality of Italy in the early 60s.
The director uses a similar aesthetic in highlighting the prostitute's tale. Each individual sequence has a dramatic arc, a point where the subplot reaches its meaning and maximum density. As if on cue by God Himself, a horrendous thunderclap and the start of a rain shower signifies the main moment of clarity from the youth's understanding of what it takes to win his girlfriend, to the ex-con's insight into how horrible his kept relationship really is. And then as if to show how insignificant these problems are, or perhaps to underscore the senselessness of her death, we take a few moments away from the characters to watch our future murder victim go about her daily routine. She rises from a nap, makes herself some coffee, fixes herself in the mirror, and puts on her "work" clothes for the night. Each minor moment, a study in silent storytelling, foreshadows and symbolizes the sadness in the character's life. This is a lonely woman living a desperate life. And while the rest of the world might scoff at her occupation and reputation, she has some value, if only to herself. By painting her in such and artistic manner, Bertolucci is setting us up for the climax, where we witness the brutal act that takes her life. It makes her end that much more senseless, that much more meaningful.
As a matter of fact, it could be easily argued that La Commare Secca is a movie based totally in artifice vs. authenticity. From the foundation up, from the way Bertolucci structures the movie (told in intersecting flashbacks and puzzle piece plotting) to the use of the storm device to divide the vignettes, the entire film is crafted under a conceit that avoids naturalism and normalcy. Purposefully shunning the cinema vιritι style and trying to find an uneasy balance between neo-realism and outright pretense the director succeeds in making a movie that is both of its time, and decades ahead of the game. He employees techniques straight out of first year film schooling, and the influence of mentor Pasolini is also present, as he begins the process of finding his own cinematic voice. Individuals familiar with the director's later works may dismiss this movie as a novice working out the kinks in his creative armor before doing battle with the big boys. But unlike other early works by famous filmmakers, La Commare Secca feels complete. It's a filmic whole, without many missing pieces to its mise-en-scene or narrative devices.
True, this is a story without a great deal of suspense. While we care what happens to a couple of the characters (the youth, Pipito, is particularly heartbroken over what has happened), Bertolucci is more caught up in the mechanics of the crime than the individuals involved. The killer is indeed a creep, as is the man who fingers him. The petty thief Luciano is a weasel, a wimpy wannabe crying as he curses those who've threatened him. Teodoro the soldier seems stupid, a typical jarhead serving his nation because he has no other discernable skill. Only Bustelli is given any manner of backstory and dramatic canvas. He has his entire criminal past behind him, but with such a shrew of a woman - not to mention a horrible Hell-beast of a mother-in-law to contend with - we can imagine sympathizing with his plight. But he is also a jerk, an asshole using as many people as he can to avoid the accountability that comes constantly knocking at the door. And our victim is all surface, making small talk with her customer as she walks toward her doom. Aside from her love of Northern Italian accents, we learn very little about her otherwise incredibly sad plight.
It doesn't help that Bertolucci goes for the amateur actor in his casting, emphasizing naturalism over nuance in the performances. Everyone here does appear as if they've come right off the street, giving his or her role a 'what you see is what you get' quality. While it does make the movie more authentic, it doesn't elevate the drama or intensify the dread. While it would be hard to imagine a famous face among the cast (though Pasolini managed it magnificently when he cast the larger than life Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma) the lack of a real three-dimensional individual signals one of La Commare Secca's minor shortcomings. While they seem fully developed, it is their stories, not the acting that is providing the shading. The ending is also a tad unstructured. After we see the crime, and realize who the sole witness really his, the final confrontation with the killer is so hyper-stylized (it happens at a dance where the camera functions as a fellow partygoer) that the eventual discovery is downplayed. While neither element undermines La Commare Secca's impact, they do show how this is a film clad in an agenda, a desire on Bertolucci's part to expand the cinematic language while avoiding the trendy traps of his fellow Italian auteurs.
Still, for its innovative and experimental narrative, for the way it turns Rome into a desolate, lonely space filled with evocative images and fantastical elements, for how Bertolucci approaches the subject of crime and investigation, La Commare Secca is a fascinating film. Those looking for a typical thriller filled with mystery, clues and careful detective work need get their whodunit fix elsewhere. This is a film about filmmaking, a movie about the cinematic requirements to create performance, mood, tension and artistry. As much a reflection of the era in which is was created as an attempt for a new director to stand on his own, it shows a true talent just waiting to be noticed and nurtured. Anyone looking for proof that Bertolucci arrived to the movie industry with ability intact, need look no further than this amazing debut. For all it has to say about misdeeds, murder and mankind, La Commare Secca speaks loudest for its creator. All first time filmmakers wish they could craft something as clever and as concentrated as this stylized slice of life...and death.
And as for the whore who lost her life at the hands of a man whose motives still remain clouded in secrecy, her cheerless lot in life is finally over, the pain of having to sell her body for a living given over to an endless sleep where tranquility may finally be found. But as this astonishing movie makes very clear, there really is no final rest in death. Of sure, those who have passed no longer share the rudiments of existence, but the murder of even the most unimportant person resonates long after the body is buried and the prayers have been said. Everyone who wandered into the park that fateful evening has been touched by the hand of the Grim Reaper. And the impression it leaves lasts forever.