How many filmmakers not only get to assist one of the great poets of cinema in his debut as director but also make their own first feature by the age of twenty-one? To be sure, Bernardo Bertolucci had grown up with certain advantages, including close relationships with the likes of Pier Paolo Pasolini, but the enormously talented young director quickly took off on his own. Within ten years of unveiling La commare secca at the Venice Film Festival in 1962 (not with any critical success, it must be noted), he had also made the audacious Before the Revolution and the visually seductive The Conformist and was shooting the film that would make him virtually a household name, Last Tango in Paris.
Born in Parma in 1941, he was the elder son of Attilio Bertolucci, a major Italian poet. When the family moved to Rome, Bertolucci’s father befriended Pasolini, already an established poet and novelist, who was beginning to make inroads into filmmaking through writing screenplays. He was also an outspoken Marxist and openly homosexual, with well-known close connections to the Roman underworld and a fascination for the moral cynicism and sensual freedom of the “ragazzi di vita,” the “boys from life,” who came from the streets.
In 1961 Pasolini made his first feature, Accattone, the story of a dissolute young man who deserts his family and resorts to petty crime, with fatal results. Immediately, he estab-lished a very personal signature—a flattened visual style close to the frescoes of Masaccio, a love of nonactors plucked from life, and a total absence of bourgeois morality and taste. Refusing past traditions, Pasolini was inventing a filmic language for himself. And his assistant on Accattone was the twenty-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci, who has often said it was like being present “at the birth of cinema.”
Their close friendship would bring its rewards. Though Bertolucci was an ardent cinephile, and had begun at the age of fifteen to make a number of amateur films with his family and friends, his precocious gifts as a poet suggested an alternative future. In 1962 he won a prestigious award for a collection of poetry under the title In cerca del mistero (In Search of Mystery). But at the same time, on the recommendation of Pasolini, who had authored the original story, he began writing the screenplay of La commare secca. Impressed by the success of Accattone, producer Antonio Cervi had acquired the rights to the property in the hope Pasolini himself would direct, but the single-minded poet preferred to make Mamma Roma his next feature. Also assigned to work on the script of La commare secca was Sergio Citti, a frequent collaborator of Pasolini’s who had a personal knowledge of Roman slum life and the local dialect. Cervi was sufficiently impressed by their work to suggest that rather than look elsewhere for a director, the task should go to Bertolucci—an offer he could not resist.
The title La commare secca comes from a quotation that appears at the end of the film—“E giu la commaraccia secca de strada Giulia arza e rampino,” which can be translated as, “And already the skinny gossip of Giulia Street raises her scythe.” It was used by Pasolini in his novel Ragazzi di vita and was taken from a sonnet by the nineteenthcentury poet Giuseppe Giocchino Belli, who wrote his blasphemous and obscene verses in Roman dialect. The story is essentially a police enquiry into the murder of a prostitute, whose abandoned body by a Roman highway is revealed in the opening shots. An off-screen police officer interrogates a series of men present in the park where the prostitute was waiting for a client—a petty thief trying his luck in the city, a smug pimp under the thumb of his aggressive fiancé, a naïve soldier from the south killing time, a smooth-talking waiter from Milan, and a couple of awkward boys looking for money to buy food for a dinner with their would-be girlfriends. As each of them tells his version of events, we see the truth behind (and often in contradiction to) their verbal testimonies through extended flashbacks covering the day and night of the murder. (Bertolucci has denied the direct influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon , which he had not seen, though he was certainly aware of it.)
Within each episode there occurs a brief rainstorm, during which, from an entirely separate viewpoint, the prostitute is seen rising from bed and preparing to go out in search of a client. In Bertolucci’s first edit, this beautiful scene, originally conceived in one complete take, was repeated in its entirety each time the storm occurred—but his producer ultimately persuaded him it would drive the audience out of the theater. Still, even as divided into shorter sections, the sequence has the delirious effect of simultaneously turning back the clock while moving the narrative forward and serves as a poignant reminder of the death that began the film and that will inevitably be reenacted.
For the fledgling director, it was vital not to follow the script slavishly but to respond to the atmosphere surrounding the shoot, an attitude from which he has never wavered. Bertolucci has often felt a kinship in this with Jean Renoir, who told him at a subsequent encounter in Beverly Hills that a director should always leave a door open on his set and be ready to deal with what may result. But in 1962, this was a brave attitude for Bertolucci to adopt. At the time, he was still living with his parents and would be the youngest man on the crew. “I can never think about the first day on the set without getting cold shivers in my back; when the cameraman ceremoniously asked me where to set up the camera, I experienced one of the most anxious moments of my life.”
Bertolucci has described how he approached the making of the film as if writing a poem, serving what he felt to be the principle subject, the passing of time. The fluidity of La commare secca’s time structure, with the film constantly folding in on itself, is like a pre-echo of the way he would later edit The Conformist, in which the car journey toward the assassination becomes a recurring event, with the main body of the narrative told in flash-back. But unlike that film, La commare secca is an investigation without a central protagonist and has no overt moral stance. Instead, the film’s attitude is one of an almost innocent enchantment, with the camera moving eloquently across landscapes (such as the magnificent pan from the Tiber River filled with bathing kids to the dance platform where the murderer is arrested) and exploring faces with a tender gaze. Bertolucci has always shown an acute sensitivity to the human form, and it’s particularly evident here in the delicacy of the scenes with the two young boys and their noticeably more mature objects of desire.
That said, this is not the personal first film a future great director is expected to deliver. That would be Bertolucci’s next feature, Before the Revolution, set in Parma and overtly autobiographical in its exploration of politics and sexuality. The influence of Pasolini in La commare secca is manifested mainly in the strata of society under observation (one Bertolucci had no direct connection with) and the use of nonprofessional actors in real locations. But in contrast to Pasolini’s austerity and the insistent frontality of his compositions, Bertolucci’s camera is allowed to take wing and constantly explore people in real environments without any self-imposed formality. This was filmmaking by someone who enjoyed a close familiarity with the history of cinema and was keen to employ a visual flamboyance in the vein of Orson Welles or Max Ophüls, especially in the use of extended tracking shots, which speak of desire and the continuity of feeling.
Of course, while resisting the Pasolini model, the first-time director might easily have followed the path of another cinema father who had just made his debut, Jean-Luc Godard. À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), with its carefree assault on cinematic conventions, had delivered a double punch to the young Bertolucci, who actually met his French “master” for the first time when he visited the London Film Festival with La commare secca. Although the revolutionary Godard would prove to be a pervasive influence five years later in Bertolucci’s Partner, with its long, static takes and alienation effects, the Frenchman’s spell would be explicitly broken in 1969 with The Conformist, in which the victim of the assassination is even given Godard’s Paris address and telephone number. For all the digressions that followed, with La commare secca Bertolucci confidently demonstrated the instinctive lyricism and sensuality that in his maturity would become his very own signature.
David Thompson is a producer/director of arts documentaries, including many BBC profiles of filmmakers (Jean Renoir, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Verhoeven, Milos Forman, and Robert Altman among them). He is also a freelance writer and was co-editor of Scorsese on Scorsese (Faber and Faber) and author of the BFI Modern Classic on Last Tango in Paris.