Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 05, 2016 11:36 pm 
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A cautionary tale tinged with Sixties Italian weltschmerz

Antono Pietrangeli's Io la conosevo bene ("I Knew Her Well"), made in 1965 before he drowned, at 49, while shooting his final film (Come, quando, perché), adopts some of the same intellectual and technical ideas one finds in Fellini, especially the latter's 1960 La Dolce Vita, to present the cautionary tale of a young and innocent woman broken by the cynicism and corruption of Rome. The star is Stefania Sandrelli, who was only 19, though it was her eleventh film. Her character has a name, Adriana Astarelli, that's an alliterative echo of hers, and a life that parallels hers except for its utter lack of good luck. Adriana, like Stefania, is a country girl who's won a beauty contest and comes to Rome to become a movie star. But instead of becoming one, like Stefania, Adriana goes through a series of little jobs and self-promotional efforts that seem to be improving but lead only to endless sleeping around and humiliation. The director is a brilliant maker of striking scenes whose jumble has a New Wave hipness, but the tragicomedy and weltschmerz of Fellini elude him.

Pientrangeli runs through 24 hours (like La Dolce Vita) with flashbacks to earlier moments in the girl's life, and there are parties and comic episodes and striking set pieces, notably a boxing match where a fashion show is held in the same venue. Afterwards in empty streets Adriana meets the lone, losing boxer -- they've been equally mocked and exploited in the arena -- and they wander together into a train station late at night, surely a Felliniesque situation. What follows is a sequence of her surprise visit back to her parents in the country, with images of her beaten-down mother, alcohol-numbed father, and a haunting peek of a pretty, perhaps retarded boy plucking poultry. There is a busy, Felliniesque party where an older man who once had clout in movies but has fallen from grace, does a pathetic tap dance hoping for a job. Adriana pays to be interviewed and then sees the result shown on TV edited to make her into a laughing stock. There is a writer she's slept with who puts an unflattering portrait of her into a story; a good looking young boyfriend uses her to call the married woman who's the one he really cares about. And there's a handsome garage man who's the only one really in love with her, but below her notice because of her ambitions. It's a series of comical jobs or illusory promotional opportunities and men for whom she is not important.

As all this is presented, one scene jumps abruptly to the next with no evident logic, in a manner meant to serve as a chic and contemporary way of illustrating Adriana's pathway to tragedy; but the film's surreal illogic and its amalgam of Sixties Italian comedy, neorealism, and pessimistic social commentary don't get into Adriana's head enough to make us care about her.

Stefania Sanrelli has had a busy career of over forty years, with lead roles not only in the great Italian comedies Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned but Bertolucci's The Conformist. In Muccini's 2001 generational comedy The Last Kiss when she was 55, still beautiful in a slightly blowzy, going-to-seed way, she gives an amusing, foolish, sympathetic portrayal of the role of Anna, a bourgeois woman busily going through a midlife crisis, that shows how much she has learned in all those years. In Pietrangeli's film she's still unformed, a pert tabula rasa. By the time of Muccini's film she has become thoroughly interesting and real.

Adriana comes off as alternately comically air headed, tough and resilient, and tragic, but without our seeing into her head enough (assuming there's anything there) to understand how all these qualities coexist. The editing, meant to be stylishly shocking, simply looks rough at times. The film is a jerky series of short scenes, tableaux more than links in a narrative chain (wherein Adriana goes through various paces -- and men), emphasizing spectacle over character development. Pientrangeli's clout shows in the inclusion of stars like Jean-Claude Brialy, Nino Manfredi, Ugo Tognozzi, and Franco Nero. It's a shortcoming that the men in Adriana's life are just generically handsome. Even though the lowliest socially, (Nero), a garage mechanic, loves her best -- the failure to distinguish social levels is a missed opportunity.

On rewatching the remastered print I was struck by the ambition of this film -- and by the hyper-real sharpness of cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi's brightly lit black and white scenes -- the garbage-strewn beach, the little beauty salon where Adriana works, the boxing arena, the shadowy but well-lit nighttime streets, the quiet farm in the country, the crowded party, even the high-rise apartment where Adriana babysits and finally begins to acknowledge the uselessness of her life. One can't help but be impressed by the sheer variety, and by the jaunty energy and fragile hopefulness conveyed by the endless Italian pop tunes. But the jerky transitions and Adriana's erratic, picaresque and breathless sequence of misadventures (unlike Fellini, Pietranteli doesn't often stop to breathe) still got in the way of my being moved in sympathy for the protagonist, or aesthetically.

Pietrageli is well known in Italy but relatively obscure here. This film, which has been greeted by writers and filmmakers alike as a hidden gem, was the crowded final offering of a December MoMA retrospective curated by Dave Kehr, adjunct curator there, with Camilla Cormanni and Paola Ruggiero of Luce Cinecittà. (Kristen M. Jones provided a short survey of the whole series in the WSJ.) The Italian lady of a certain age who crowded in next to me at the last minute in the MoMA theater was ceaselessly delighted: for her this was nothing more than a glittering time capsule of her youth. It seems that Americans too like to view this movie through rose-colored glasses.*

I Knew Her Well/Io la conoscevo bene, 99 mins., was first released in Italy 1 Dec. 1965, and in half a doen other countries that and the following year. It was revived in Italy in 2002. It began a run at Film Forum Friday, 5 Feb. 2016. This is its first US theatrical release.
* See Armond White's review of thie film in National Review online: "Not every overlooked foreign film is a masterpiece."

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