Friday, February 19, 2016

I Knew Her Well

I KNEW HER WELL (Pietrangeli, 1965)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 23, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Unsurprisingly, “I Knew Her Well” (1965) is intended as an ironic title. Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli) spends most of the film in the company of a series of “wonderful guys” in Rome, each of whom is sure they've figured her out. She's a pretty, young thing, a part-time hairdresser and usher who aspires to be an actress even though her skillset consists exclusively of being young and pretty, so how much is there to figure out anyway?

One of her lovers is an older writer (Joachim Fuchsberger) who intends to use Adriana as a character in his next book, though one gets the impression that his “next book” has already been postponed many times. Being a writer (and a man) he is, of course, a keen observer of human behavior and has expertly analyzed this character as a carefree girl unburdened by thoughts of the future, or any particular thoughts about the present for that matter. That this happens to correlate precisely what he wants her to be is just a happy coincidence.

If the audience makes the same mistake about Adriana, perhaps they can be forgiven since cinema is a medium of surfaces and our young protagonist offers limited access to her internal life. She's all smiles and wigs, both carefully selected to match the setting. As she coasts from one “wonderful guy” to the next, madly loving each of them in the moment, she appears capricious and na├»ve, but as the film progresses we get occasional glimpses at the considerable emotions roiling beneath the placid surface.

Adriana finds herself the target of multiple exploiters, phony promoters and “directors” who promise her a shot at movie glory, for a price. Adriana has moved from the family farm in the Tuscan countryside to heed the siren call of the economic miracle in Rome, the subject of so many Italian films of this period, most notably Antonioni's. Though that call may well lead her to her doom, dashed against the rocks like many an ensorcelled sailor before her, the poignancy of Adriana's plight is that she is no country rube, but rather fully aware of every scam being played on her.

It's not always a struggle, mind you. Some of the schemes are great fun, like when the charming rogueDario (Jean-Claude Brialy) leaves her to pay the hotel bill after a romantic evening; she still smiles when she finds out later that even the bracelet he left her as a briefly-held memento was stolen. To be nineteen and part of the jet set in Rome, even just lurking on the fringes, can be a blast and Adriana knows how to enjoy herself in every night club and even when she has to take on some mildly embarrassing jobs such as serving as an ersatz fashion model at a shoddy boxing match, where she finds drunken catcalls instead of the glamor she anticipated

There are moments of real connection too. After the boxing match, she senses a kindred spirit in the broken-down palooka cruelly nicknamed Lunk (Mario Adorf). Kept around for his ability to lose without complaining, Lunk has been processed into a commodity as surely as young Adriana, and her recognition of the fact prompts her to return to her farm home in hopes of finding a better path trhough life. Unfortunately, mom and dad don't have any answers.

Director Antonio Pietrangeli, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ruggero Maccari and the recently deceased Ettore Scola, was best known for his comedies. “I Knew Her Well” still has its light-hearted comic interludes, but most are tinged with a sense of the absurd turned tragic in a society that relentlessly exploits the vulnerable. The obvious comparison point, made often in the extra material included by Criterion, is Fellini's “La dolce vita” (1960), another ironic Italian title from a few years earlier. The most “dolce” sequence in Pietrangeli's film involves a washed-up actor (serial scene-stealer Ugo Tognazzi) forced by a vapid but successful movie star to tap-dance himself to death's door just to impress a group of neurasthenic party-goers. Funny at first, crushingly sad by the end. Yet another disposable commodity.

Pietrangeli's wisest decision is to follow his protagonist closely through her many brief adventures, letting each vignette exist on its own without forcing each to snap together to construct the larger mosaic. Sandrelli, all of nineteen at the time, portrays Adriana as warm, open, sincere, and deceptively attentive. She absorbs everything she experiences and even if being fully aware is not sufficient to win the day against overwhelming odds, her ability to constantly adapt in subtle ways enables her to resist easy categorization by anyone: her various paramours and predators, the filmmakers, and the audience. The only “I” who can sincerely make the titular claim is Adriana herself, which is simultaneously a victory and the film's defining tragedy.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This new 4K restoration was created in partnership with the Cineteca di Bologna from the 35 mm original camera negative and a 35 mm fine-grain positive.”

The high-def transfer looks pretty close to flawless with a fine grain structure preserved throughout – restoration doesn't appear to have eliminated any detail. The black-and-white contrast is subtle and satisfying giving the film a soft look in its bright outdoor scenes. It just looks great.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and damage free. Like just about all Italian films of the era, sound was added in post-production and there will be moments when effects sound unnatural – the clip-clopping of Adriana's high heels in an early scene sounds like a block of wood being banged against a table one inch from the microphone, for example. But that's just a by-product of the production process. No complaints about the audio. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.

“I Knew Her Well” is, alas, not very well-known relative to many other celebrated Italian films of the '60s. Criterion was therefore unable to really stack the deck with extras, but the features included make the argument that the film deserves greater consideration.

The first feature is a 2015 interview (9 min.) with actress Stefania Sandrelli. She discusses how she first worked with co-screenwriter Ettore Scola on fleshing out the character of Adriana, someone whose ambition she could identify with even if Sandrelli had a somewhat easier route to the world of cinema. She made her first splash in the Pietro Germi hit “Divorce, Italian Style” (1961) and followed up with a bigger role in Germi's “Seduced and Abandoned” (1964). “I Knew Her Well” was the next step to a very successful career. The disc also includes Sandrelli's audition footage (5 min.)

Film scholar Luca Barattoni (2015, 22 min.) makes an impassioned argument both for “I Knew Her Well” as an overlooked masterpiece on par with anything from Antonioni or Fellini, and for Pietrangeli to be accepted into the inner circle of Italian auteurs as well. I haven't seen enough of his work to assess Barattoni's judgment, but he certainly knows his material, covering the director's career in detail from his critical writing for the influential Italian journal “Cinema” to his screenwriting efforts for Visconti and Rossellini to his earliest directorial effort. Pietrangeli drowned in 1968 at age 49 while shooting a film.

The only other extra is an original Theatrical Trailer (3 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by author Alexander Stille.

Final Thoughts:
It took me about a half hour to figure out there was something more to the movie than just watching a pretty girl out partying in glamorous Rome. I suspect that's exactly what the director and writers would love to hear, since Adriana is the kind of character who sneaks up on you, gradually emerging as a complex figure. Pietrangeli isn't exactly a forgotten filmmaker, but he's nowhere near as celebrated as other Criterion favorites of the era like Antonioni and Fellini. “I Knew Her Well” suggests he deserves a closer look.

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