Based on a book by Pier Paolo Pasolini, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) was Bernardo Bertolucci’s debut. He would go on to more sexually charged work with Last Tango In Paris and the more recent The Dreamers, but there is still an undercurrent of strong passion within this film.
It is essentially a crime thriller in a Neo-Realistic style, structured in a very similar manner to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon. Though the comparison can be distracting, La Commare Secca is still a consummate and often beautiful piece of work. The opening scene is quite stunning, especially with the music score, as Bertolucci’s roving camera finally settles on the body of a murdered prostitute near the banks of the river Tiber. The story reveals she was last seen alive in a park and the plot unfolds in flashback as the police interview each suspect who was there that night as well.
As in Citizen Kane, we never see the policeman asking the questions which may imply it is us, the viewer. That idea was explicit in Citizen Kane, but much looser here. What the suspect says in the interview is never the full story, which we see in more detail. Each sequence pauses during a rainstorm to show us the prostitute preparing herself in her apartment, before briefly returning to the current flashback.
The sequences feature a youngster who robs people in the woods with his friends; a chancer working with a woman to demand money from her clients; an aimless soldier; a loner; and a kid who gets in trouble for robbing a homosexual, the same man who reported the body and will eventually identify which of these people was the murderer. The common theme of each suspect and the victim being that they are on the edge of society and there is some irony in them all being suddenly so important.
I found it to be a rather uneven film. The second sequence with the guy dealing with his girlfriends and turning out to be driver for one of them was the best, while the kid who robs the man in the park was very annoying. He and his friends had an incessant habit of giggling between bouts of overacting. Italy’s answer to Beavis and Butthead? Not liking that so much!
The brilliance of the film is in Bertolucci’s directing. He successfully builds a whodunit drama through the film, regardless of the shifting tones between the flashbacks, while each of those is a substantial development in the plot, with a sombre atmosphere each time it returns to the doomed prostitutes apartment. While each sequence is a perfect example of Neo-Realism in itself, what you don’t see between them, you form in your own mind and so a typical crime thriller is unfolding into the spaces.
A good film lessened by its similarity to Rashomon and uneven acting, but still worth seeing for how smoothly Bertolucci weaves the different parts into a cohesive whole.
In La Commare Secca you can possibly see the influences from other world cinema and it is in the comparisons that we find the Realism. For instance, I referred to Citizen Kane’s device of making the viewer feel like the interrogator and how Bertolucci does a similar thing. However, in Kane you could argue it was purely a narrative decision -the audience are tied to one viewpoint until the childhood sequence- whereas in La Commare Secca it isn’t so focused. Perhaps it is there to remind us we are watching a film and make us aware of the other sources which seem to be involving us directly.
This is what fascinates me about this period of film. Although this was an example of Realism, it has matured enough to involve the audience and create a kind of whodunnit plot. So creating a plot by not slavishly adhering to a plot! Whoa, dude. Where are the drugs?! You can start to see the seeds of Dario Argento’s movies too. His approach is often compared to Hitchcock, because of how the narrative is aware of an audience and plays up to them, but that’s starting to creep through here as well.
What’s also nice about this period is how closely some of the film-makers were working together, specifically exploring the limits (or not) of their Genre. So La Commare Secca was written by Pasolini, who also directed the Mamma Roma.