Plugging that title into Babelfish, Judge Dan Mancini was shocked that it translated to "The Commare Secca."
And already the Grim Reaper of Giulia Street raises her scythe.
Providence drew Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor, The Dreamers) into filmmaking. An aspiring poet, he befriended poet-turned-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and assisted him on his debut feature, Accattone. Pasolini's second film was to be La Commare Secca, and he convinced the executives at Cinecittà that the young Bertolucci and co-writer Sergio Citti (Salo) were up to the task of adapting his original story into a screenplay. By the time the script was completed, however, Pasolini had become obsessed with making what would be his breakthrough film, Mama Roma, so he convinced the studio to hand the directorial reigns of La Commare Secca over to then 21-year-old Bertolucci.
Bernardo Bertolucci wouldn't make a big splash in world cinema until the release of his second, more personal film, 1964's Before the Revolution, but his debut makes a fascinating study in burgeoning cinematic potential. The Criterion Collection brings it to DVD in a lean but beautiful package.
Facts of the Case
The story begins with the police's discovery of the body of a prostitute, murdered in a culvert near the Tiber River. One at a time, the cops haul men who were in a nearby park around the time of the murder in for questioning: a petty thief, a small-time pimp, a soldier who was looking for a little female company, a kid who was trying to scrounge money to take his girl on a date, and a mysterious man in clogs. As each suspect/witness relays his tale, the truth behind the murder comes slowly into focus.
La Commare Secca is often compared to Kurosawa's Rashomon because both explore a single event—a murder—from the vantage point of a variety of characters, moving back and forth in time to do so. The comparison is unfair because Bertolucci's film isn't philosophical in the least. He spends no time ruminating on the subjectivity of truth. The men under interrogation tell their stories and the images we see on screen either confirm or deny their claims. Luciano the thief, for instance, tells the police he spent the day pursuing a promising job lead; all the while, we watch him meet up with two fellow thieves on the hunt for a mark. What is immediately and abundantly clear is that the image represents objective reality, while the characters' narration is their self-serving rearrangement of actual events. Since truth exists in the world of La Commare Secca, we're drawn progressively toward the revelation of the prostitute's murderer. In Kurosawa's film, by contrast, we never quite figure out who killed the samurai because all the witnesses' stories contradict one another, and none exculpate the teller—a knowable truth doesn't exist.
Unfortunately, Bertolucci's film doesn't work all that well as a whodunit. The pacing is excruciatingly slow for a genre piece, and the identity of the murderer is hyper-obvious long before the final revelation. It does mostly work as a Neorealist observation of a day in the life of a gaggle of oddball characters, though. Tasked by Cinecittà to make a film in the style of then one-time director Pasolini, Bertulocci utilized non-actors just as his mentor would have, and the looks of all the characters are rugged and natural. These folk are entirely believable as true denizens of Rome. Much of the camera work is handheld, providing a rough-around-the-edges aesthetic in perfect keeping with the actors. The picture approaches documentary style at times, reinforced by the realist aura that accompanies black-and-white photography. The vignettes themselves get lost in the minute details of the characters' lives and stray far from the murder at the center of the picture. They're united by the occurrence of an afternoon thunder-shower during which the murder victim dresses for work on the street, a sort of signpost to draw us back into the intrigue of the murder mystery. The film's ability to maintain our interest waxes and wanes according to the quality of the vignettes, and is most successful during the long middle segment when we follow the hen-pecked pimp Bustelli. He's a pathetic boob, a kept man who acts as an enforcer for his repellent girlfriend, who actually runs the ring of hookers. The battling duo is so comic/vile they take a puppy from a prostitute as collateral for payments to them in arrears. Bertolucci demonstrates some mastery of tone here, as we feel the exhausting emotional weight of Bustelli's dead-end life, but dislike him just the same. Conversely, the tale of Pipito and his buddy trying to scrape together enough money to take their coy girlfriends to dinner is the least compelling. The quartet of youths is fairly nondescript, and their delicate fumblings toward romance smothered in the more fascinating adult antics on display throughout the rest of the picture. The story culminates in a poignant end that feels forced. Here, Bertolucci seems to be aping the Truffaut of Jules et Jim or Godard of Breathless. One doesn't get the sense Pipito is the same sort of youth as Bertolucci, and the fledgling director stumbles through his lack of familiarity with his subject.
La Commare Secca opens with a lovely, lyrical shot of newspaper leaves wafting over the edge of an overpass and drifting downward into the grassy ravine over which the camera pans to the inert body of the prostitute. It's a gorgeous shot, perfect for opening both the film and Bertolucci's career. If La Commare Secca feels at times like a Pasolini film, it is in the use of camera that we see Bertolucci's future greatness peeking from behind his imitation. The picture is loaded with clever shots and, in sharp contrast to Pasolini's static approach, constant movement. The elegant beauty of the shot described above is perfectly balanced against the bumpy handheld work that gives the film a sense of immediacy and truth. This DVD release from Criterion presents Bertolucci's beautiful work at its original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio, enhanced for 16x9 displays. The restored black-and-white image is marvelous, and most signs of dirt and age have been removed. The single-channel mono audio track is also impressive, having been digitally tweaked to remove hiss and other distractions.
Supplements are light, but La Commare Secca isn't one of Bertolucci's more important films. A video interview with the director, shot in 2004 specifically for this release, runs nearly 20 minutes and captures his recollections on Pasolini and the origins of La Commare Secca. A fold-out insert has an essay by critic David Thompson that, while informative, repeats much of the information provided by Bertolucci in the interview segment.
Assessed on its own, La Commare Secca is only a partial success. It's a charming little movie, though, that provides a fascinating glimpse into Bertolucci's future success. Criterion's DVD is technically impressive, and the film—while not at the pinnacle of their catalogue—is entirely worthy of its place in their lean-on-extras, budget line of releases.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci
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