The Grim Reaper (Italian: La commare secca), 1962.
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.
Starring Marisa Solinas, Allen Midgette, Giancarlo De Rosa and Alfredo Leggi.
When a prostitute is brutally murdered in a park near the Tiber River in Rome, the police track down all visitors to the park that night in the hope of catching the killer, with each suspect giving their own account…
Sometimes, just sometimes, films resemble books very closely. No, not The Phantom Menace novelisation. More like those taut, briskly paced thrillers that keep you turning pages well into the small hours; those madcap comedies that make you laugh so hard and so often you feel your face is about to break in half. Not so common are the short stories; the films that break up into little segments, looking long and hard into brief periods of time. Tarantino is quite fond of this structure – look at Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds. Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a masterpiece in the genre.
A conversation. A day at work. A couple of hours’ idle wandering. Most of Bertolucci’s vignettes in The Grim Reaper comprise nothing simpler than these basic premises. They might even be considered as something approaching ‘normal’, if it weren’t for a dead prostitute found on the banks of the Tiber. The Italian police (faceless, nameless and credit-less from start to finish) are investigating her death, and that means interrogating everybody who was in that park last night.
They have five suspects; we get five stories. Canticchia, a scruffy purse-snatcher taking a short cut home through the park. Bostelli, a suave, ladykiller sponger hiding suspiciously in the bushes. Teodoro, a half-wit soldier, asleep on the park bench. Francolicchio and Pipito, a pair of spotty herberts desperate for money to impress their dates, picked up by an older man with money. A nameless creep in clogs completes the set, running off with something under his jacket. Under the interrogation room’s spot-lamp, the suspects tell their versions of the day’s events. We learn nothing from their casual lies.
Most crime stories would introduce a brilliant detective at this point, to cross-examine the suspects or investigate in-depth. Bertolucci side-steps this predictable device and cuts right into their heads, for a first-person account of their activities. He isolates his suspects, letting us into their private lives and their quietest moments. We have the golden opportunity to judge for ourselves who they are, what they amount to, and what they’re capable of.
It all takes place in Rome. Not the bright, touristy Rome of Angels & Demons or Roman Holiday. This is Bertolucci’s Rome; dirty and a little desolate, with mules and scraps of grassland on the outskirts. Hardly the sleek, coffee-shop, landmark-a-minute location we’re used to seeing on film. Still, in The Grim Reaper, we learn quickly that appearances can (and will) be deceiving. Bostelli looks cool and collected, but how many people would guess he lives in fear of his psychotic loan shark girlfriend ambushing him with a knife? What would Pip and Franco really do to get their hands on some money for a gnocchi recipe?
The Grim Reaper isn’t for everyone. The naturalistic, almost awkward acting style, full of quirks and nervous tics, could be a bit frantic for some. The non-linear structure is bound to confuse those who don’t like to afford a story some thinking time during and after.
If you’re one of those people who sits in train stations and dreams up names and lives for the people around you, this film is for you. It’s reflective and quietly thrilling and a visual delight of ruined streets and magnetic movements. If, however, you’re one of those people who can’t wait to get from one place to the next, you’re probably better off watching something with more guns and explosions and breasts than The Grim Reaper has to offer. I hear Transformers has all that happening on the moon later this summer. Go you.
If you’re neither of those people, console yourself that you got a paragraph to yourselves. And then watch it anyway. It’s something old that’s still somehow something new, shot by a 21 year old director full of visions and ideas and gnocchi.
The Grim Reaper is released on DVD this coming Monday.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.