[30 March 2016]
Two decades on from the catastrophe of World War II, 1965 Rome is full of open spaces and previously unimaginable opportunities. A devastated city in a run-down country is finally on the up, enough so to lure wide-eyed optimists away from the drudge of a poverty stricken agricultural existence. Except all that glitters is not gold, as young hopeful Adriana finds all too painfully in Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well.
Beautiful, charming, and committed to a better life, she seems all set to seize on the new, hard-won freedoms offered in this decade of sexual liberation. Adriana is first introduced to us face down and top-off on an empty, rubbish strewn beach, catching a few rays before the working day commences. Overstaying her morning sojourn, she gets an old man to reattach her bikini top as she dashes to open the nail salon in time. It’s not her only job, nor is it one she’s content with. Played by Stefania Sandrelli, Adriana is rarely off screen and rarely still. Her life is one of constant movement and change, flitting between jobs, parties and people.
It’s a deceptively attractive existence, using luxurious living to mask the soulless and exploitive world she finds herself quickly trapped in. For this young woman eager to make a mark, she becomes easy prey for unscrupulous men looking for short-term fun and media types happy to turn her yearning for something better into one giant humiliating joke. She’s passed around men of higher standing, and some down and out scoundrels, always looking on the bright side as they discard her, while her attempt to get on screen only occurs via a short that makes her the butt of a cruel joke.
None of this is initially visible in a breezy film that covers the darkness with easy-light. Pietrangeli specialized in Commedia all’italiana: an Italian style mixing comedy with deeper social realities. As such, I Knew Her Well can initially be enjoyed on surface level alone. Crisply shot in black and white and impressively rendered again in this 4K restoration, it’s a film every bit as attractive as its lead. Whether dancing away in nightspots, moving around elite parties, or following her daily hustle, there’s always a nice image to capture attention.
As this goes on, Pietrangeli throws in plenty of amusing sequences. There’s the customer who wanders off mid-way through being directed to his seat by Adriana in her job as cinema usher, the boyfriend who takes over omelette making duties from the waiter, and an old has-been dancing himself breathless on a table-top. Except every situation is soon turned upside-down. In the cinema, Adriana returns to watch the screen with longing, in the restaurant her no-good partner’s behavior embarrasses everyone, and the has-been later reappears to try and procure her for a friend.
A pattern sets in where no matter how positive things look they’re always liable to turn sour. One romantic night out leaves Adriana pawning jewelry to cover the bill after her boyfriend flees the scene early. That the jewelry turns out to be stolen is one further humiliation to add to the list. Yet she keeps springing back up, always in search of the next opportunity. It’s this ridiculous optimism that sees her turn up with expensively coiffured hair and a formal dress for an advert that only shows her feet. It’s this determination that gets her moving forward again after being used and thrown away by countless men, and mocked by one-time friends who take more enjoyment from her failure than they do any success she’s ever had.
Sticking closely to Adriana throughout, a lot hangs on Sandrelli’s performance. She manages to mix innocence with just enough steel to stop from collapsing into a hopelessly naïve mess. Watching through her eyes, it’s easy to see why she makes the choices she does, and self-harming as they may be, it’s hard to suppress the feeling that maybe next time will be different. After all, the alternative, demonstrated in a brief return to her family home, is a life of grinding work in search of limited self-sufficiency. It’s not just the finer things in life her family lacks, it’s pretty much everything.
As she trudges through lowlifes searching for the highlife, there are too many repetitions of the same set-ups, and the early vibrancy goes a little stale, but the message delivered is clear and unequivocal. In this age of freedom, not everyone turns out to be quite as free as they think. To allow some people to live the unshackled life they dream of, others have to pay the price. Adriana is one such person, stuck on an endless carousel that uses and abuses until she gives up or fades away. What happens to her isn’t really important, because in a sense it’s pre-ordained. She’ll serve a purpose until someone prettier, younger and more enthusiastic appears. It’s certainly a liberating time, but not everyone reaps the rewards.
The Criterion release, a 4K restoration, includes a new interview with Stefania Sandrelli, footage from her audition, an interview with Luca Barattoni discussing director Antonio Pietrangeli, and a written essay.