THE GRIM REAPER (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962)

At his invitation, Bernardo Bertolucci completed Pier Paolo Pasolini’s script (along with Sergio Citti) and directed the result—beautifully. La commare secca thus became the 21-year-old poet’s auspicious film debut.
     An immense bridge, glimpsed from below, cuts diagonally through the frame; what resembles a burst of birds turns out to be a flurry of notepad pages descending from some unseen hand on the bridge. Driven by breeze, they find the corpse of a middle-aged prostitute in a Roman park. The idea of fate relates to the poverty that has driven her to this risky way of earning money, although, we learn, many times the johns she had picked up were themselves too poor to pay her.
     The film is structured as a series of interrogations by the police of five suspects. Something that happens along the way is that we see the situation in the park on the fateful, fatal night from different perspectives, giving the film a Rashômon-like quality; moreover, inserts of the victim in her home preparing for the night’s streetwalking accompany each of the suspects’ accounts. Sometimes what we see as flashbacks do not match what we hear the person tell the police; for instance, the first suspect, instead of spending the day looking for work, as he tells the police, meets up with two pals in order to find a stranger to rob in the park.
     The objectivity of the police interrogations combines with the subjectivity—in some cases, lyricism—of the flashbacks as Bertolucci surveys a brace of struggling and predatory Roman lives.
     Characters pass into and out of deep shadows and disquieting silence. The most sympathetic character is the victim herself; the least sympathetic, the one who, when arrested, explains: “I didn’t do anything! She was a whore!”

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