I KNEW HER WELL (Italy, 1965)
Review by Paul Cogley
Adriana is young and fresh from the country. In Rome, she is easily lured into the hedonistic, fast life, where she will meet many men who are eager to show her a good time, make promises they will not keep, and inevitably discard her.
At one point Adriana happily takes care of a baby boy while her neighbor runs an errand. She gives up an opportunity to audition for a film in order to have this one afternoon of babysitting. Precious few moments like this allow her to express her inner life. Over time we see her ever-ready smile become not so ready. Sooner than anyone could have expected, Adriana must face up to the lonely fate of so-called party girls.
Antonio Pietrangeli’s “I Knew Her Well” (1965) fits in the genre of Italian modernist movies that includes Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse” (1962). These filmmakers sought to uncover the malaise of post-war 20th century materialism and explore the harm to the soul that comes with unreflective relationships. Their films took place in Rome’s fashionable but ultimately empty, fast-paced world. All feature Rome’s night scenes and use black-and-white cinematography to convey a darkness of mood.
In “La Dolce Vita” American style rock is featured in just one scene. By Pietrangeli’s film—made five years later—rock has become the pervasive soundtrack. The early British Invasion style rock it features seems, in retrospect, to innocently foreshadow the excessive drug subculture that will pervade the youth culture by the end of the 1960s.
Most strikingly, these films are modernist in their experimental, un-narrative approaches to storytelling. The filmmakers wanted viewers to spend some effort to discern clues about the unseen, interior lives of their characters. Thus, “I Knew Her Well” begins with a series of vignettes featuring Adriana. With frequent and abrupt segues, the film’s vignettes don’t start to add up as a unified story until we catch on that Adrilana’s self-realization is beginning to awaken.
A turning point occurs in a bedroom scene, when Adriana—draped only in a sheet—recognizes herself in a character description that her novelist lover has left in his typewriter. From there, Pietrangeli’s storytelling technique works better since we are no longer left to wonder about the overall point for the vignettes.
Unlike Fellini and Antonioni, in his lifetime Pietrangeli never achieved high critical regard, nor did his films receive the notoriety that they deserved. He died in 1968 from an accident and for many years was virtually unmentioned in Italian film histories. Then, in the early 2000s, film academics began a reappraisal of his work. Screenings took place at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere. Critical and popular acclaim increased.
In 2013, his reputation was further restored when “I Knew Her Well” was listed among the Venice Film Festivals “100 Most Important Italian Films to Preserve 1942-1978.” (It is #75). In February 2016, “I Knew Her Well” finally became widely available with English subtitles in the Criterion DVD Collection.
The film is also well served by the natural performance of Stefania Sandrelli as Adrana. Sandelli was 19 in this film but seems to be a few years older. Already a seasoned film star, she had key supportive roles in Pietro Germi’s dark comedies “Divorce Italian Style” (1961) and “Seduced and Abandoned” (1963). Today Sandrelli still works in film; according to IMBD, she is featured in a new film to be released in 2016, “Il Crimine Non Va In Pensione.”