31 March 2004 | acerf
Even though for whatever strange reasons Bertolucci sliced three years from his age - it was originally claimed around the time of its release the Director was but 19 - La Commare Secca is a stunning debut for any film maker.
In a nutshell, then, here's the proposition and it's a grand one: Five suspects, (well, there is a "pair" of suspects in one instance) are questioned about a whore's murder. We all lie. So do they. The suspect's lying versions of events are depicted; reality as they would have it. All it happens, are guilty of something, as is everyone in this world, Bertolucci's point and almost never seized upon.
Frankly, this is also Bertolucci's best film. Throw out wholesale, such criticisms as: "not a bad try for a beginner," or, "better things were to follow," ...they weren't and they didn't ...
Economical use editing tricks as well as its compact run-time, mean that unlike the 'masterpieces,' The Spider's Stratagem, and especially, Before the Revolution, this film enjoys a continuity which - 60's (and his own) ethos aside - the masterpieces lacked. Though of course disjointed film-making was what was later intended in this director's canon, it hasn't aged well. It worked for Antonioni, (usually) and Fellini, (sometimes) and Italian cinema generally (with greatly uneven results), but it didn't work often, for our BB.
The performances - in some scenes by real street urchins, are superior. All ring true, particularly when the second crook tells his 'version' of events. As the camera gives the lie to his protestations of innocence, we see through the casual violence of his life, the essential truth: most crime is fueled by boredom, rather than bad breaks or genetic disposition. And while photorealistic acting in the hands of say- late Al Pacino, is dry as dust, in this director's hands, his absolutely true-to-life observations are small beauties.
The haunting soundtrack - nice cliché, right? actually haunts. It works perfectly. It fulfills the purpose of a cinematic score - it enhances the film - frequently raising the dramatic stakes all on its lonesome.
Particularly memorable, is that in this movie, background details are utilized for their own sake. Unlike Antonioni's Ecclise for example, where 'incidental' detail is of course the real foreground detail, Bertolucci's approach seems to be: While such details don't bear on the story, why not use them to best effect? Indeed, why not?
Thus, in some ways overshadowing all others, the teenage dance party and the "two boys two girls" scenes of innocence that precede it, are simply indescribably hypnotic. Seldom has the big screen been graced with such perfect realizations of adolescence. The facial expressions of the girls when the boys refuse to dance are not only peculiar to Europe - there are no comparable expressions on the faces of young America ... but, as the world becomes a common, drag-filled strip mall, such pulled faces may soon - like certain Italian dialects, (Milanese) be extinct.
My only beefs are for a scene in which an Italian boy takes to the Tiber to elude the police; the actual outcome of his swim is not made clear, indeed I had to see the thing twice to understand. And two ... when the villain, the murderer, is caught, it is without any twists - he was simply one of the suspects and he did it. There are no red herrings, no surprise innocence or guilt He DID it. Minor gripes.
This film, while regarded a poor sister to Bertolucci's alleged later masterpieces, is truly Before the Revolution - the title of his next film, a, yep, 'masterpiece' that isn't. Like so much of art generally, and unhappily film especially, cute proclivities in Commare Secca, all-to-soon became compulsive and dull, mannerisms.
A Director too often lauded and far too often castigated (Pauline Kael's insane rants against Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) this film is a confident tour-de-force of very young film maker as virtuoso.
A spectacular must see.