Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well deserves to take its place in the canon of classic cinema that defined Italy in the 1960s, alongside such films as Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse, and Dino Risi’s Il sorpasso. Like those others, it describes the country at a moment of crucial transformation—a period of economic boom in which a poor agrarian society found itself becoming a richer, urban one. The peripheries of cities mushroomed with anonymous-looking high-rise buildings, and Italians, enjoying the sudden wealth, zipped around in flashy convertible sports cars, in a moment of dizzying, disorienting freedom. There is Vittorio Gassman giddily passing cars on Rome’s new ring road, Marcello Mastroianni wooing Anita Ekberg in his Triumph convertible, moving between the Baths of Caracalla and the Trevi Fountain. The Alain Delon character in L’eclisse is epitomized by his Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which is stolen and has to be fished out of the Tiber. In I Knew Her Well, we are presented with this same world in transformation but from a different angle. And so, early in the film, we see Adriana, played by Stefania Sandrelli, sitting in an armchair atop a car belonging to a furniture company, moving at full speed, feeling the exhilaration of the night air rushing by.
Coming upon I Knew Her Well is like rediscovering this moment in Italy through a new and singular sensibility—La dolce vita but following a young woman of modest origins. The film was well received when it came out in 1965 and was placed on the list of “100 Italian Films to Be Saved” at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Still, for most of the intervening half century, it has been forgotten by the wider public. And yet there are scenes in it that are so iconic and arresting that you feel certain you have seen them before: a convertible ride down a Rome staircase; Ugo Tognazzi, playing a washed-up actor, tap-dancing to the point of collapse in an attempt to win a part in a film. They remain in your mind as indelibly as Ekberg’s wandering into the Trevi Fountain in La dolce vita, the wedding of a Rome pimp in Mamma Roma, the pandemonium at the Rome stock exchange in L’eclisse.
Pietrangeli’s career began—like those of many of his generation—in the world of Italian neorealism. He worked as a screenwriter on numerous films in the 1940s, including a couple of the early films of Luchino Visconti (1943’s Ossessione and 1948’s La terra trema), and made his own debut as director with Il sole negli occhi (1953), which tells the story of a young orphaned woman from the countryside who moves to Rome to work as a maid. She goes through the experience of disillusionment, getting pregnant by a man who turns out to be something of a bounder. But the film ends with a rather remarkable—one is tempted to call it a protofeminist—twist: the young woman refuses her boyfriend’s offer of marriage, and decides to keep the child and raise it herself. And in the closing scene, a group of her friends—all maids like herself—agree to help her. In Nata di marzo (1958), the elements of female solidarity and gender equality are also markedly and surprisingly present at an early date. Here, Francesca, the disillusioned wife of an architect, tries to help a prostitute who is being arrested: “I feel solidarity with you,” she says. “We are all kept women.” She tells her cheating husband that she has had an affair, convinced that unless he can forgive her and they can achieve an element of equality, their marriage has no hope. “Pietrangeli was unusual in that period for his interest in and attention to female characters,” screenwriter and filmmaker Ettore Scola, who contributed to the screenplays for The Visit (1963) and I Knew Her Well, among other Pietrangeli films, said in an interview about Pietrangeli’s work.
Many of Pietrangeli’s films also fall into the broad category of commedia all’italiana, the popular Italian comedies of the 1950s and 1960s that combine humor and light satire of Italian society with darker notes—the most famous being Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style (1961). Pietrangeli’s The Bachelor (1955) is a classic Alberto Sordi comedy about an inveterate playboy who decides he wants to marry. The Magnificent Cuckold (1964), with Tognazzi, about a philandering husband whose obsessive jealousy pushes his wife into the infidelity he most fears, is rather in the spirit of Marriage Italian Style (1964). Here, too, Pietrangeli pays special attention to unbalanced gender relations: The Magnificent Cuckold satirizes the way in which traditional Italian macho mores collide with a moment of greater personal freedom for women. Halfway between these lighter comedies and the more challenging I Knew Her Well is the marvelous The Visit, about a lonely country woman who receives a visit from a man from Rome with whom she has corresponded through a personal ad. It is a sweet and light satire of provincial life and a romantic mishap, with a particular sympathy for the female protagonist.
But none of Pietrangeli’s previous films prepare us for the complexity, visual power, and stark interplay of light and dark worlds of I Knew Her Well, which tells the story of Adriana, a country girl who moves to Rome to start a career as an actress. In depicting another country girl arriving in the big city, I Knew Her Well takes up the theme of Il sole negli occhi, but the Rome of 1965 is not the Rome of 1953. That earlier Rome was already a city in transformation, one of new apartment buildings and insidious traps for the ingenuous, but by the mid-1960s, the economic boom had become supercharged, the pace of change frenetic. It is not only a place of people stepping on one another to get ahead but also of media-drenched illusions, of newspaper headlines, paparazzi, and movie stars. Like La dolce vita, the film is set in the world of the Italian cinema. At the beginning, Adriana works in a movie theater, and the film shifts back and forth between the realm of her hopes and dreams and what is depicted on the screen. We watch her watching a movie in which a character says, “You men are all alike!” which might be an alternate title for the film, which portrays a long string of exploitative relationships.
The film follows Adriana’s professional and sentimental careers as she careens from relationship to relationship, from job to job, like a twig or a cork being carried downstream by a powerful current. At first glance, the movie would appear to be without a definite plot—Adriana changes men, hats, hairstyles, and clothes with equal rapidity and seemingly with the same happy-go-lucky nonchalance, while moving through the demimonde of the Italian cinema. Under the guidance of a somewhat sleazy agent, played by Nino Manfredi, she pays to have a story about her published in a movie magazine, she participates in fashion shoots. But through Adriana’s seemingly random wanderings, a darker story emerges.
After she allows a handsome young man named Dario to take her to a fancy seaside resort, Adriana wakes the next morning to find him gone, leaving her with the bill—which she pays with a bracelet he has given to her as a present. Not long thereafter, on an impulse, she goes to see her family in the Tuscan countryside. While the city may be disillusioning, she quickly understands that the country holds little or nothing for her. Her father is a sweet alcoholic, and her mother an embittered weather-beaten woman, both of them weighed down and prematurely aged by a life of relentless hard work and the death of Adriana’s younger sister—an event Adriana knew nothing about, since her parents did not have her address. Her mother reproaches her for being out of touch but acknowledges that life on their farm is “hell.” Adriana returns to Rome and aborts a child, presumably Dario’s. Next she is called into a police station—the bracelet that Dario gave her turns out to have been stolen. On learning that her boyfriend is a thief as well as a cad, Adriana asks the detective to have him call her if the police find him.
Like so many of the generation of Italians who moved from the country to the city, Adriana is caught between the mores of the old and new worlds. The traditional codes of behavior—once dictated by the Catholic church and the family—have lost much of their power. La dolce vita opens with the memorable scene of a statue of Christ being helicoptered across Rome while girls sunbathing in bikinis on rooftops wave—as if religion has become another consumer object in a hedonistic world. Pasolini, in films like Accattone and Mamma Roma, explored these themes within the brutal new urban subproletariat of Rome’s periphery. And Antonioni, in films like La notte and L’eclisse, described the psychological alienation of Italy’s new urban elite. In I Knew Her Well, Adriana finds herself in a world of exhilarating freedom but no rules, and seemingly no values other than self-gratification.
Adriana is a charming, contradictory, and fascinating character. In the midst of a corrupt and predatory world, she remains remarkably sweet-natured and open. She agrees to take care of a neighbor’s baby on short notice, giving up a meeting with a movie producer and potential boyfriend without a moment’s hesitation. When an admirer asks her if she knows why he likes her, she says she doesn’t but that she is happy just the same. Played wonderfully by a young Sandrelli, Adriana is always game, her body moving restlessly, generally to whatever music is on in the background. But about halfway through the film, there is a scene in which we are suddenly asked to step back and reflect on this character. She is wandering around the apartment of a writer-lover, with only a sheet around her, when she plucks out the piece of paper in his typewriter. It describes a female character named Milena. When she presses him for details about Milena, he says: “Trouble is, she likes everything. She’s always happy. She desires nothing, envies no one, is curious about nothing . . . Zero ambition. No moral code . . . Yesterday and tomorrow don’t exist for her. Even living for today would mean too much planning, so she lives for the moment.” As Adriana listens, she laughs with amusement at first, then becomes troubled when she realizes that she is Milena. “Is that what I’m like? Some sort of dimwit?” she asks. “On the contrary,” he says. “You may be the wisest of all.”
While some of the writer’s analysis rings true, it also, of course, smacks of a dismissive male point of view, regarding Adriana entirely from the surface and denying her an inner life. And this moment of analysis functions as something of a pivot in the film, whose mood begins to darken and to gradually contradict the writer’s take on Adriana. She continues to enjoy herself, but gradually the cruelty of the world she is navigating becomes more pronounced. In one scene, another of Adriana’s new loves, a wealthy playboy, asks her to arrange an encounter with another woman, his real love—which she dutifully does. Oddly, the calculating heartlessness of this move seems considerably crueler than Dario’s caddish behavior at the beginning of the film.
Another moment of deepening cruelty—and one of the most memorable sequences in the film—is an elegant party in honor of a celebrated movie actor named Roberto (Enrico Maria Salerno). At the party, the has-been actor played by Tognazzi tries to get his old friend Roberto to help him land a part in his new movie. Roberto encourages Tognazzi to do a tap-dance routine to impress a producer, and Tognazzi, like a trained seal, works himself into a frenzy in his desperate attempt to impress. We half expect him to have a heart attack, but he manages to stop short—as the scene pulls back from possible tragedy, the pain of it resonates through the rest of the movie.
We are shocked by the ending of the film, but in retrospect, Pietrangeli has prepared us for it. The title I Knew Her Well is deeply ironic, since we see Adriana almost entirely from the outside, as a happy-go-lucky party girl. As her writer-lover says: “Trouble is, she likes everything. She’s always happy.” While he assesses her shrewdly in some ways, he misjudges her radically in others. “She doesn’t notice the humiliations, though they happen to her every day,” he says. “Everything disappears without leaving a trace.” But, on the contrary, one comes to realize that all the humiliations and forms of cruelty she has witnessed or experienced—and appears to have brushed off—have gradually devoured her. Although the viewer has been put in the position of many of the male characters, judging her from the surface and not looking seriously at her interior life, at the same time, we ultimately realize, the eye of the camera—Pietrangeli’s eye—has shown us far more than the story of a hapless waif in the city.
In fact, there are many clues along the way to suggest her darkening interior state, which is often expressed through exterior scenes that reflect her subjectivity. Many of the views of Rome we see in the film are through reflections—reflections in the windows of Adriana’s apartment, reflections in the windshields of cars, in the water of the Tiber River—signs of Adriana’s alienation and disembodiment. Her final night of revelry ends as she and her date sit in a car and watch birds flying around in an aviary, suggesting that Adriana feels herself to be a bird trapped in a cage.
One of the interesting puzzles presented by I Knew Her Well is that one is often not sure in what spirit to take it, whether it is a comedy or something else. As Scola said in that interview, the commedia all’italiana almost never involved “big events or decisive turning points in people’s lives”; they ended in an unresolved fashion in the banality of the everyday. I Knew Her Well pushes beyond the boundaries of Italian comedy and moves into territory one associates more with a director like Antonioni. This problem of categorization—as well as Pietrangeli’s death at the relatively young age of forty-nine—may help to explain why this remarkable and singular film has not enjoyed the consistent popularity and renown it so richly merits.