The Grim Reaper
Italy / France, 1962
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 28 February 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Bernardo Bertolucci found his first day of shooting this film, his debut, to be something of an anxious experience. At twenty-one, he was approximately the youngest member of the entire crew. Although La Commare secca originated from one of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s original stories, the more renowned filmmaker opted not to direct (at this time, he would be making Mamma Roma); the privilege was bestowed to Bertolucci, whose only previous experience was as a production assistant on Accattone. Nonetheless, the film’s financiers were eager to replicate the critical success of Pasolini’s immensely popular debut, and wanted a film deliberately evocative of his manner of filmmaking, exampled solely, at the time, in Accattone.
This foundation would excuse La Commare secca for the flaws that are customary to debut films—or for not exhibiting the frank sexuality that would come to distinguish Bertolucci’s renowned later efforts. Its narrative is strikingly Pasolinean, concerning the murder of a prostitute, and the investigation that ensues (many of the interrogated are the sort of poor, handsome Italian teens in virtually each of Pasolini’s films). Absent is the concentration of faith, emulations of popular fine art, and perfectly symmetrical compositions. I am not sufficiently familiar with Bertolucci to say if the film shows signs of, firstly, his characteristics as a director, but La Commare secca is noticeably demonstrative of a filmmaker who is in command of his production and who uses his resources to great yield. The matter of Bertolucci’s inexperience is, in turn, extraordinary. Considering the invariable quality of Italian cinema in the ’50s and ’60s, La Commare secca would be a lesser film in the party, but it is only in this light that the film’s individual strengths are downplayed.
For all these merits, and they are numerous, La Commare secca is a flawed film to the viewer familiar with Rashomon. It is contested that Kurosawa’s film was unseen by Bertolucci at the time of filming (this speculation is forwarded in both the liner essay and interview available on the Criterion disc), but the similarity between the two remains distinct. The fatality is introduced in montage during the opening credits, and the remainder is comprised of a series of interrogations of those present at the speculated time of death. In each the arrested party is in front of a nondescript background, and speaks directly into the camera, to an off-screen interrogator. Each speech is inclusive, concerning the accused party’s time before and after the crime; only in the resulting network of testimonies can guilt be assigned. Unlike Kurosawa’s early masterpiece, La Commare secca is defined by the clarity of its resolution, but similarly contests the relativity and often opaque nature of truth.