- Ravi Swami
"I Knew Her Well", Dir: Antonio Pietrangeli, 1965
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
It's been rare so far in my lockdown viewing to say that I've stumbled on a real find - a director I've never heard of before, an actress equally little known outside of a few films that have reached international audiences as a result of her co-stars, and a film that really ought to enjoy a wider audience.
Thanks to Criterion Channel, this little-known film is now available, along with a few mini-documentaries and interviews, and is currently the only film by the director Antonio Pietrangeli in the Criterion catalogue - hopefully they will extend the range of his work in future.
It's hard to fathom why Pietrangeli, working during what was the Italian New Wave, neo-realist period of the late 1950's and into the 60's and that mirrored the French New Wave, is not quoted amongst the other notable directors of the period such as Visconti, Antonioni or Fellini, though it's known that he cut his teeth as a director by working on their films and early in his career contributed to the Italian equivalent of "Cahiers Du Cinema" : "Bianco e Nero"
It may be because he became known as a director working in the "Comedia All'Italiana" cinema genre of broad entertainers that roped in stars like Marcello Mastroianni and was most associated with Alberto Sordi, and indeed, "I Knew Her Well" (Italian title: "Io Lo Conoscevo Bene") is described as such even by Criterion though having watched it, I struggle to find any comedic aspects to it.
However, Pietrangeli somehow weaves a tale of an innocent abroad, an aspiring actress played by Stefania Sandrelli, with an astonishing lightness of touch, aided by an eclectic soundtrack of 60's jazz and pop (incl' a track or two by Millie "My Boy Lollipop" Small) and a pop-y leitmotiv score by another discovery, Piero Picchioni, whose sweeping, jazz-infused romantic melodies for numerous films throughout the 60's and 70's seem to have passed unnoticed compared to the work of other giants like Nino Rota, Morricone and others, in a similar fashion to the career of Pietrangeli.
In some ways the plot is reminiscent of Fellini's earlier "Nights of Cabiria" in terms of the theme, that of women navigating a male-oriented world in the Post-War period and casting off the restrictions of tradition, though where Cabiria was a prostitute, "Adriana Astarelli"(the strikingly beautiful Stefania Sandrelli) plays a free-spirited young woman with a background in grinding rural poverty and by implication, no education, living by her wits in the big city and with ambitions to be an actress, something fueled by a brief spell as a cinema usherette.
At the outset we get the impression that Adriana is resigned to the fact that her progress depends upon surrendering herself to various men, since she lacks the smarts to be fully independent, first to her boss in the beauty salon she work in at the opening of the film and then to a succession of fickle young men, who, having bedded her, move on to the next conquest.
The narrative is divided into episodes defined by each new lover and where Adriana appears in a new incarnation each time as if she is playing a role, in anticipation of her intended career. Outwardly she seems to conduct herself in a wanton fashion and while some of the men she meets are random when she is on the rebound from lovers or seeking to avoid persistent ones or those who wish to exploit her, there is always the hope of her acting career taking off.
The acting career fails to materialize however, despite having secured an agent early on, and viewed now in the context of the "Me Too" movement, the price she has to pay for that success is too much, leading to a realization that she has been exploited by various men and with it a creeping sense of disgust and sadness, expressed in shots where she breaks the Third Wall, looking directly to camera before we see a flashback to her happier life in the small town where she grew up.
Visually and aurally the film is a riot of 60's pop culture, from Adriana's fashions through to her car, a tiny Fiat, equivalent of the iconic Mini, and she represents a gear-change from the voluptuous figures of Sophia Loren or Anita Ekberg that refer back to wartime pin-up icons like Betty Grable, to the slimmer figure silhouette, bobbed hair and minimal make-up of 60's fashion model icons like Jean Shrimpton or Twiggy. With that it's also possible to detect a shift in tone from the ecstatic optimism of the immediate post-war period to the cynicism in the Cold War period that followed - a period also marked by rapid urban development, economic growth and a thriving youth culture.
Adriana's trajectory from wannabe actress through to almost actress, taking in an abortion along the way that could ruin her career, and the eventual realization that she is simply another contender among many, is a parabolic one and in perhaps the film's only problematic final sequence, she spends an evening with a young black man who she meets in a club and while there is no implication that she has slept with him there is the suggestion that this is the final act of shame and something that her deeply traditional family back in the provinces, would be horrified by.
The film ends with Adriana throwing herself to her death, broken hearted, from the balcony of her apartment, her life having been a merry-go-round of affairs and unreliable men, with love eluding her and just out of reach.
Depending upon your point of view the film could be either a morality tale about the shallowness of an industry that consumes talent, and in that sense a tragic-comedy, or about the position of women in the film industry and society in general.
As I watched it unfold I could see parallels with the story of my maternal grandmother who broke with tradition, like Adriana, but coming from a small orthodox Brahmin village in South India, to pursue a career in films after escaping a forced marriage at the age of 14 and with no education to a man of 40, and in so doing faced the same challenges of navigating a male-dominated society and industry and sexual exploitation before her career too foundered. With the family shame came mistreatment of my mother and bouts of poverty as she squandered whatever earnings she made from erratic film work.
Adriana's story is clearly a common one, and as the "Me Too" Movement revealed, has not really changed - the details of the stories may be different and how you choose to tell that story - here, Pietrangeli tells it with great sensitivity that never at any point slides into melodrama, aided by a terrific central performance from Stefania Sandrelli.
Like I said at the start, a real find.