Saturday, July 2, 2016

Bernardo Bertolucci | La commare secca (The Grim Reaper)

getting wet
by Douglas Messerli

Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Citti (screenplay, based on a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini), Bernardo Bertolucci (director) La commare secca (The Grim Reaper) / 1962

Bertolucci’s first feature film, La commare secca, is outwardly a Rashomon-like tale as police question various men and teenagers about the brutal murder of a Roman prostitute. We see the “truth” while nearly all the interviewees tell the police another tale, each “story” framed by a short thunderstorm during which the prostitute prepares to leave the house.

But, in fact, the prostitute and her murderer—a small time Friulian thug who wears clogs—hardly matter. The real thread winding through these stories concerns love and sexual abuse. Few of these characters have a private place to even meet for love-making or sex. A former criminal lives with his girlfriend, who herself seems to be a pimp for several women; but during the day in question he has decided to leave his girlfriend who has provided him with living expenses and a new car, intending to give her up for another woman. A gang of young men prey on lovers in a park, stealing whatever they can, purses and radios. Two young teenage boys court two girls, finally gathering in an older friend’s home to dance. Later, picked up by a homosexual for illicit sex, they steal his coat, mistakenly believing it might contain his billfold.  A handsome soldier on leave—a true “hick” as we would describe him in English—clumsily attempts to pick up women, and, after touring the Coliseum, falls asleep on a park bench. The homosexual actually witnesses the prostitute’s murder, at the end of the film identifying the murderer to the police. 
        Bertoluicci’s Rome seems to offer no place to go. The gigolo is hated by his lover’s mother, and the mother and daughter seem to spend most of their time in brutal fights. The soldier not only has no place to take a woman, were he able to find someone interested in his lurid advances, but has little ability to even communicate in a civil society. The poor thieves who prowl the woods are rewarded nothing but two pears; and one of their members almost is arrested for his acts. The teenagers cannot even find a place to talk, except by taking advantage of a friend’s kindness when her own mother is out of the house. The gay man is forced to seek pickups in the park, engaging in illicit sex near the river’s edge, the same location where the prostitute takes her would-be customer for sex. Life for all of these unfortunates is literally lived on the street.
       The only internal scenes, the apartments of the prostitute and the gigolo’s lover, the home of the teenager’s friend, and the final dance club where the murderer is caught, are small, cramped, and in disarray.

        For all of these characters, finally, sexuality is something to grab and grope quickly, associated with robbery and rape. The film shows a world in which nothing is lasting and permanent. Life is lived on the run, and everyone promiscuously takes what he or she can get, tossing away the remains. 
      Even the teenagers, who seem well intentioned in their young love, turn to thievery, one of them possibly drowning in the river as he attempts to swim away from the police who have come to question him. As in many of Pasolini’s films, this early Bertolucci work portrays a society where nothing seems to truly matter, as everyone strives to get what little they can. But, as the repeated rainstorm motif makes clear, without a societal umbrella to protect them, all of them are destined to get wet.

Los Angeles, July 2, 2016

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