Film Review: I Knew Her Well

Stefania Sandrelli excels in this perceptive 1965 study of an aspiring young Italian actress.
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In Hollywood, there is no shortage of movies that celebrate young women. Among the classics are Gigi, about a 15-year-old (Leslie Caron) whose destiny is to carry on the family business as a courtesan; Roman Holiday, the journey of an escaped teenage princess; and Sabrina, the story of the chauffeur’s daughter who moves up the social ladder (the latter two starring Audrey Hepburn). Charming and enduring, these women are nevertheless creatures of male fantasy, and are often seen from the vantage point of men. For authenticity, one must turn to darker films, such as Robert Bresson’s A Gentle Woman (1969), the story of a young bride who commits suicide to escape an abusive husband; the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta (1999), whose teenage hero lives in a trailer park, and Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl (2001), an uncompromising view of the sexual awakening of a pair of sisters.

Late last year, at a Museum of Modern Art retrospective, a treasure trove of genuine female characters emerged, among them a very young, provincial beauty queen named Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli). In Antonio Pietrangeli’s Io la Conscevo Bene (I Knew Her Well), she gets to Rome when she is hired as a shoe model. The black-and-white movie was originally released in 1965, at the height of the commedia al’Italiana era. A new print will get art-house distribution this week.

In the opening shot of the film, Adriana lies on a beach as the camera does a lingering pan of her legs, her backside, clad in a bikini bottom, and her bare back. Modesty is not one of Adriana’s qualities, nor is restraint. She is resigned to sleeping with men in order to realize her ambitions of becoming a movie star, but in the meantime she works as a movie theatre usherette. Like the other male characters in Pietrangeli films, the men who aid Adriana are unfeeling and lecherous, and mostly interested in riding her coattails. As they slink in and out of her life, only one man, “the writer” (Joachim Fuchsberger), admits that she “may be the wisest of all” in her “minute-to-minute” way of life.

Adriana soon meets an oily public-relations guy (Nino Manfredi) who, while pretending to promote her career, tries to pimp her out to rich men. In a wonderful sequence in Orvieto, where Adriana works as a model in a fashion show that takes place between boxing matches, she rebuffs her promoter and wanders off to catch a train back to Rome. On the way, she meets the losing boxer, the kind of man she might have married had she stayed back home—but as Pietrangeli points out in the next sequence, while Adriana admires this simple guy, her beauty led her to a very different sort of life than he represents.

On a whim, she decides to board a train traveling in the opposite direction, and visits her indigent and aging parents. There is little love to spare in their household, and the stopover, as well as the brief flashbacks throughout the film, make apparent Adriana’s reasons for escaping when she could—and Pietrangeli’s disgust with Italy’s idealization of agrarian life. It is not long before Adriana begins earning money as an actress, but she remains at the fringes, living in the outskirts of Rome.

In some ways, Adriana is a typical 1960s woman, straddling the era of the “casting couch” and the sexual liberation that arrived with the Pill. She is also a fun-loving twenty-something who likes to dress up and go dancing, which is mostly what she does in I Knew Her Well. Pietrangeli understood her appeal: A liberated woman, an Italian girl who leaves home before she is married, is also sexy, and he revels in that and in Sandrelli’s beauty. She is luminous, although she is not the sex kitten she might have been in another movie. Here she is exploited. Pietrangeli details the many ways in which men demean Adriana, as only a man who “knew her well” could.

He also takes such obvious delight in Adriana’s spirit, as when he shoots her from below on the roof of a car, that the audience may find themselves giggling along with his unforgettable character. In an interview (an extra on the Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray), Sandrelli says that Adriana “ero io,” “was me” and that the part was “the role of my life.” As for Pietrangeli, who spanned the eras of late Italian Neorealism and commedia al’Italiana, and drew from both traditions, he died at age 49, leaving behind this masterful film, one of the best portraits of the destruction of innocence in any language.

Three-quarters of the way through the film, Adriana thinks she has met the love of her life, but Antonio (Robert Hoffmann) tells her that he has become obsessed with his friend’s sister. They are in bed together when he asks for a favor. He describes how difficult it is for him to call Cristina because her parents object to him, and Adriana realizes that Antonio wants her to call. This time, she cannot shrug off the cruelty, as she has in the past. As her lover speaks to Cristina, Pietrangeli goes to close-up on Sandrelli, who, for a brief moment, stares directly into the camera. The suspension of disbelief is shattered and Adriana is suddenly very human and very frail.

In two previous films on the same theme, La Parmagiana (The Girl from Parma, 1963), about a young woman (Catherine Spaak) who hopes to recover from a scandal by going home, and La Visita (The Visit, 1963), the story of Pina (Sandra Milo), a middle-aged woman who places a Lonely Hearts ad, the female characters are aware of their exploitation. In the opening sequence of I Knew Her Well, Adriana complains to her boss, a married man who expects sex in exchange for giving her a job, that he could be “nicer.” At a party, a famous actor is attracted to Adriana, and sends someone else (Ugo Tognazzi) to ask if she would like to join him for a drink. Naively, Adriana tells the go-between that the actor needs to ask her directly. That and the incident with the promoter signal that Adriana is not unaware of how she is being used—but unlike la parmagiana and Pina, she is a fledgling.

In the early 1960s, Italy saw workers’ strikes, and by 1968, the year Pietrangeli died, radicalization of the country’s universities, but there was no burgeoning feminist movement, as there was in the U.S. The status of Italian women had not changed dramatically since the war years, yet in I Knew Her Well the writer-director (whose first screenwriting assignment was with Luchino Visconti on Ossessione) perceives his hero from a feminist standpoint. He separates Adriana’s sexual maturity from the core of her youthful purity and artlessness. She is an innocent. In I Knew Her Well, Pietrangeli so deftly chronicles her psychological and emotional battering that her despondency near the end of the film comes as no surprise. This is a timeless story, although not in Pietrangeli’s hands, an archetypal one. For him, Adriana remains flesh and blood.

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