The primary interest for “La commare secca” (1961) is that it was Bernardo Bertolucci’s first movie, made when he was a second-year university student. In a 17-minute 2004 interview for the Criterion DVD, he explains that he had been an assistant on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first movie, “Accatone.” Cinecittà backed Pasolini to make a follow-up film. Pasolini had written the story about lies and murder that was to be “La commare secca.” Pasolini had Bertolucci and Sergio Citti (who worked on many Pasolini movies, sometimes credited as a writer, sometimes as an assistant director) write a screenplay based on his story. By the time they were done, Pasolini was preoccupied with making “Mamma Roma” (and managing its volcanic star, Anna Magnani) and Pasolini’s suggestion that Bertolucci direct the movie was accepted, despite Bertolucci’s youthfulness. He recalls that everyone except some of the actors was older than he was.
In the interview, he also explains that he sought to give the movie his own look with continuous camera movement (in contrast to the static setups of “Accatone”), but that the milieu and characters were so much those associated with Pasolini (as a writer before becoming a film-maker) that no one at the time noticed (and saw Pasolini as the auteur of “La commare secca”). Bertolucci also says that he had not seen “Rashomon” at the time (which is somewhat hard to believe, since he had hung out at the Cinématheque, as he relates in the commentary track to “The Dreamers,” but not all that relevant, as I’ll discuss below).
To watch the movie as Bertolucci’s start is aided by watching the interview first. (He is fluent in English and not at all bombastic in talking about his past work.) As a whodunit, the movie is not particularly good. The answer to the whodunit question is obvious by the midpoint. Moreover, the suspects are not all particularly interesting. The most repellant one—a very lazy, henpecked pimp called Pipito—is the most interesting, the adolescent would-be lotharios the least.
The movie begins with some artsy shots of litter blowing along the banks of the Tiber. The camera discovers a corpse that is trapping some newspaper pages. The rest of the movie consists of police interrogations of males who had been in the (part of) Parco Paolino where the dead prostitute was loitering with intent the night on which she was killed. Each suspect tells what he had been doing that day and night. Unlike Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Rashomon” the flashbacks are not the divergent versions of the same event told by multiple narrators. Instead, the flashbacks show what really happened (mostly before the teller went to near to where the prostitue was).
Rather than differing from the accounts of the others, the flashbacks differ from what the stories the suspects tell. The movie is not about the difficulty of sorting out what really happened. The flashbacks show that, even while undermining what the boys and men tell the police. Believe what you see, not what you hear is the recommended (especially in Italy) practice implicitly endorsed by the objective camera—even if it glides artistically around and sometimes looks at events from arty angles.
I don’t see any need to catalog the lies and spoil the pleasures of contrasting the particulars of what the males say they were doing with what they had been doing (thieving and pimping and hitting on women in the street rather than looking for work, etc.). In the flashbacks, it is the females who know what they want and effectively go about getting what they want as the males posture and flounder. I see this as an early instance of something of a leitmotif in Bertolucci films.
The milieu of lowlifes is one about which Pasolini knew more and cared for more than Bertolucci. Bertolucci used nonactors (a common but far from universal neorealist practice) and “La commare seca” has a documentary look/feel that is very much in the neorealist tradition (except for the camera moving as much as in a Max Ophuls movie). The pacing is slow, like later Bertolucci movies rather than like most police procedural ones. It’s definitely not a “thriller.” And, unlike most police dramas (movie and tv), it does not show the policemen at all. It shows the suspects squirming and lying and contrasts their accounts with the reality of what they did. (I think that most of them are lying to themselves to some degree, not just presenting more respectable images of their behavior and character to the police.)
The title puzzled me. Literally, it means “the dry godmother.” That made no sense to me, but I had houseguests from Rome to ask about it. I thereby learned that “La commare secca” is a Roman metaphor for death, so that “grim reaper” is a good English metaphoric equivalent.
The Criterion DVD is another marvel of sending old pictures and sound into the new technology looking and sounding their best. The Bertolucci interview is very good at establishing the context and style in which the film was made.
©2005, Stephen O. Murray
Bertolucci dies on 26 Nov.