Director Bernardo Bertolucci

Screenplay Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Citti (screenplay), Pier Paolo Pasolini (story)

Cinematography (b/n, 35mm, 1.66:1) Gianni Narzisi; camera operator Emilio Giannini; camera assistant Enrico Umetelli

Set and costume design Adriana Spadaro

Editing Nino Baragli

Music original soundtrack by Piero Piccioni; Aria del Gran Duca by Santino Garsi da Parma (1542-1604); canzoni Come nasce un amore by Nico Fidenco, Addio, addio by Claudio Villa

Sound (mono) Sandro Fortini

Assistant director Adolfo Cagnacci

Continuity Elisa Carnevali

Cast Vanda Rocci (the Prostitute), Francesco Ruiu (“Canticchia”), Giancarlo De Rosa (Nino), Vincenzo Ciccora (“Sindaco”), Alfredo Leggi (Bustelli), Gabriella Giorgelli (Esperia), Santina Lisio (madre di Esperia), Carlotta Barilli (Serenella), Allen Midgette (Costantino Teodoro), Alvaro D’Ercole (Francolicchio), Romano Labate (Pipito), Lorenza Benedetti (Milly), Emy Rocci (Domenica), Erina Torelli (Mariella), Silvio Laurenzi (man in a raincoat), Renato Troiani (Natalino), Marisa Solinas (Natalino’s girlfriend), Gianni Bonagura (police captain’s voice), Clorinda Celani, Ada Peragostini, Nadia Bonafede, Ugo Santucci, Santina Fioravanti, Elena Fontana, Maria Fontana

Producer Tonino Cervi (Cinematografica Cervi); production supervisor Rodolfo Martello

Distribution Cineriz

Runtime 88′

Filming locationsRome (EUR gardens, Parco Paolino, Monteverde vecchio, Villa Sciarra, Colosseum, etc.), April-May 1962

First public screening XXIII Venice Film Festival, August 27th 1962

Theatre release (Italy)November 3rd 1962

 

The Prostitute I could see you’re Friulian, I’d guessed it. But what are you doing here at Parco Paolino? […] Well, so now you had a great encounter: you met me! I had a Friulian girlfriend once. She was nice. So nice. […] Plus she knew how to get by: if you’re from the North, you get more respect; everybody shows you all this respect, all this devotion… But I know why everybody treats all you Northern Italians with respect […] It’s because you talk so well, you speak so nicely. I make myself ill over hearing you talk! […] She wrote me last Christmas. She said she was done turning tricks and was waiting to get the license for a coffee bar. But she forgot to write her address, so I never answered. Who knows what she was thinking? Maybe she thought I was dead.

 

“And already the Commaraccia secca/on the Strada Giulia raises her sickle…”

Giuseppe Gioachino Belli

 

The lifeless body of a prostitute is found in a field along the banks of the Tiber. The police start to investigate and identify five suspects, all hustlers from Rome’s working-class suburbs. Through subtle interlocking, their interrogations provide the connecting thread to the story, along with the flashbacks of the anonymous victim’s last afternoon rising. Through their half-truths and blatant lies, the small-time thief known as “il Canticchia”, the former pimp Bustelli (who lives off of his loan-sharking wife and mother in law), the young and naive Calabrian soldier Costantino Teodoro, the Friuli-born Natalino and the sixteen year-old Francolicchio (still in shock because of his friend Pipito’s tragic death) each tell us about their madcap day of sun and rain, before they all found themselves, around midnight, in the vicinity of Parco Paolino. Finally a witness mentioned by one of them leads the police to a public dance-hall, where they catch the one responsible, that is, the one who lied more than the others.

 

More than anything else, The Grim Reaper should be seen as a pretext to develop into a feature film the theme of ‘impermanence’, already touched upon in the amateur short La teleferica (The Cable), shot when he was 15 years old. Of Pasolini’s text Bertolucci essentially kept the multi-voiced structure and the episode with Francolicchio and Pipito, creating instead from scratch – together with Sergio Citti – four or five stories that are told in the film, as well as the connecting thread provided by the scenes of the protagonist getting up to go to work. (In Pasolini’s version the victim was not a prostitute but a homosexual). Thirty years later, an Italian critic suggested that the idea of the thunder invariably linking the various episodes might have inspired Jarmusch’s famous gunshot in Mystery Train (1989).

 

I’ve always been a movie buff, and it was the classics of the silver screen that showed me to what extent cinema can become poetry. In making this first film I tried to confer lyrical form and expressive power to each frame, and a precise rhythm to each sequence. What takes cinema away from storytelling and moves it closer to poetry is the editing. So, as I was shooting, I already had the editing very clear in my mind, I knew each scene’s rhythm, their beginning and end. More importantly, when I sat behind the camera, my state of mind was the same as when I used to write poems […] My way of looking at reality is not the same as Pasolini’s. While we share a dramatic sense of a hovering destiny, my attitude has an ironic vein to it.

Bernardo Bertolucci, interview by Vinicio Marinucci in Questions et réponses, daily release from the Venice Film Festival 1962

Bernardo Bertolucci in Venice, August 27th 1962
Photo Reale Fotografia Giacomelli

Press Review

 

In an interview, Bernardo Bertolucci declared that […] the art form closest to cinema is not the novel, the theatre or painting […] but poetry. This, if I’m correct, needs to be understood not in Croce’s sense that there is no art without poetry, but in the narrower and more particular sense of an entirely poetic, that is, entirely irrational and ineffable, approach to reality. […] After seeing The Grim Reaper, I think Bertolucci is right in his parallel between cinema and poetry, at least for what concerns his work. The best aspects of this movie […] such as the obscurity and lightness of the treatment, the mystery regarding the choice of characters, the narrative rhythm and grace, and especially the unexpressed component distinctive of poetic expression, demonstrate that his statement is correct. Bertolucci’s talent is mainly poetic, that is, aiming to capture the Leopardian “bitter moment” of life –the moment in which the existential pang arises. […] The beginning of the film in some way brings to mind Rashomon; for a moment, one thinks that it might illustrate the impossibility of discovering the truth. Then, suddenly, one realizes that its aim instead is to show us an all-modern tranche de vie, devoid of any veristic or sociological intent – in other words, a poetic slice of life.

Alberto Moravia, Rasciòmon delle borgate, L’Espresso, November 4th 1962

 

Despite being based on a story by Pasolini, featuring the life-teeming and scorching themes of his most famous novels, The Grim Reaper doesn’t have the desolate compassion of Accattone, or the high drama of Mamma Roma; it is a more subdued movie, whispered rather than ‘screamed’. This is not, however, because of a deficiency on the part of Bertolucci, or because he is unable to find the rhythm, the denouncing force, the colourful breadth of the […] human specimens that crowd Pasolini’s works. What emerges in Bertolucci, instead, is the personality, already mature and aware, of a poet, a different creative striving that carries this novice director in the direction of stylistic and visual interests that are perhaps closer to those of Free Cinema. […] With its pauses, long silences, and lost days, The Grim Reaper shows the desire to reveal, even in such abnormal characters as the “pimp”, the drifter and Canticchia, a human melancholy that brings these hustlers and street kids very close to certain themes of existential angst that are very dear to the more innovative currents of contemporary cinema. […] In this sense, the movie can be compared to the more committed expressions of the nouvelle vague, notwithstanding the fact that The Grim Reaper lacks the pretentiousness and excessive preoccupations with form that are the most obvious limitations of French cinema. See for example the episode with Canticchia who […] is able to convey the greyness of a sad, lacklustre life; or the desolate loneliness of the three small-time thieves, huddled in a waterlogged cave as the rain pours down all around them […] The climax of this vibrant poetic representation comes with the long, emotional gaze with which the young soldier follows the fast-running south-bound train: in a split second, his eyes reflect all at once his joyous love for his native land, the promise of his return, and a subtle, blissful nostalgia. Very aptly, the short final sequence ends with a heart-rending retreating tracking shot, which slowly reveals a […] museum of human relicts, waiting for the sun.

Gregorio Napoli, La mesta Commare secca, Il Domani, November 10th 1962

 

Bertolucci was born in Parma in a wealthy bourgeois family and raised in a setting open to foreign cultural influences, […] steeped in nature, with which he maintained a connection, leading to a disposition for pastoral and elegiac sentiments. He made his first feature film in a sort of state of grace […] In the early period of his career – which ends with the strident and vivifying Partner, shot in in the full heat of May 1968 – he exposes, and this in the fullest sense of the word, the mood with which he perceives the events. In this sense, The Grim Reaper is perhaps the only truly ‘adolescent’ film in the history of cinema. It expresses with perfect clarity an adolescent vision (technical virtuosities, provocations, extravagant originality etc.), abounding in ephemeral qualities: fervour and recklessness, which engender some natural audacities that can only bloom once.

Jean-Claude Biette, La Commare secca (1962) de Bertolucci, Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 309, March 1980, now in Poétique des auteurs, Editions de l’Etoile, 1988

Pier Paolo Pasolini with Bernardo Bertolucci

Contributions

 

We went to the Venice Film Festival expecting an award for his directorial debut, but Bernardo didn’t get it. What he did get was a lot of heckling, because any time Pasolini’s name came up people were always booing and screaming. The people who were jeering him then are the same ones you’ll hear today saying that they’ve always been his friends and always loved his work. Once the decision was made to have Bernardo direct the film, Pier Paolo stayed out of it, coming just a couple of times on the set. Bernardo did it all on his own. He was a cinéphile, influenced by the Japanese, and so the movie he made was something very different from a movie like Accattone. Bernardo was deeply devoted to Pier Paolo, as were inevitably all those who knew him well. Pasolini had a truly great mind, and it was almost impossible not to be fascinated by him both on an intellectual and a human level, because like the rare people who are extremely intelligent, he was also the embodiment of modesty.

Tonino Cervi, in L’avventurosa storia del cinema italiano raccontata dai suoi protagonisti (1960-1969), Franca Faldini and Goffredo Fofi (eds.), Feltrinelli, 1981

 

It was one of the first days of shooting, or maybe even the very first day, in a wooded area near the EUR. Bernardo still exuded this rich-boy aura, and pretended to have the wheeled cart go through a very narrow tunnel he’d seen in the tufaceous rock. Immediately the chief electrician told him it was impossible, that there just wasn’t enough space and that he had to find another solution. I can still see it in my mind’s eye now, how Bernardo asked for a hammer and started hammering away at this darn hole himself, to make it large enough. A few minutes later, all the camera crew were chipping away at the tufa as well, and in less than an hour the tracks were ready for a unique shot. Ever since that moment, the crew knew that our young dottore’s ideas, even the most bizarre, had to be taken seriously. He was a natural-born director.

Enrico Umetelli, Bertolucci’s future camera operator and at the time assistant camera on the movie set, from an unpublished conversation

 

When I participated in the Miss Italia competition, the organizer Mirigliani suggested that I withdraw because of my young age (I was a minor), and the news was reported by the press. So, Pier Paolo Pasolini saw photos of me on the papers and asked me to come to Rome (I was living in Leghorn at the time) to audition for a role in Mamma Roma, alongside Anna Magnani. He had a good impression of me, and while he didn’t think I was right for that role, he introduced me to his assistant Bernardo Bertolucci, who at the time was making his directorial debut with The Grim Reaper, a film based on a story by Pasolini.

The one condition set by PPP was that I had to reside in Rome, because the crucial meeting was going to be in the next few days. From his look I understood that I would be right for The Grim Reaper, so I blatantly lied, telling him that I lived in the city. The truth was that I had nowhere to stay, and had only 30,000 Liras and the return ticket to Leghorn in my pocket. So, I looked at the ads and immediately found a place as lady companion for a baroness in the Parioli neighbourhood. Two days later I received the call from Bertolucci and the producer Tonino Cervi. I signed a contract then and there, for 250,000 Liras, a sum that seemed to exceed all my expectations! That was the beginning of my movie career. Since it was a neorealist movie, several actors were taken directly from the streets. I must say that I wasn’t always comfortable: I was a small-town girl, and I had never been exposed to such a crude reality. The opportunity provided by PPP and BB gave me a lot of recognition, and this paved the way for my later work with equally famous directors: first Monicelli, then the Taviani brothers, Maselli, Lizzani, Montaldo, and even Fellini and the French director Lelouch. The fate was sealed by the twin initials PPP, BB, GG. A wonderful coincidence.

Gabriella Giorgelli, from the Estoril Film Festival catalogue, December 2008

 

After my promising debut in auteur cinema with Boccaccio ’70, the producers introduced me to Pier Paolo Pasolini and to the young director Bernardo Bertolucci. Both were involved in the making of The Grim Reaper […] and they readily agreed to cast me in their film. My great love for Bertolucci started then, and grew slowly, deeply and secretly. I found this extraordinary young man, so intelligent and always kind, immensely reassuring, and under his guidance I could act with great lightness and spontaneity. Next to him, everything seemed wondrously ordinary. And yet I was terribly jealous of his kindness and warmth towards others, because I wanted it all for myself. I loved him.

Marisa Solinas, from the Estoril Film Festival catalogue, December 2008

 

Acting in Bernardo’s first feature film, The Grim Reaper, is still my most cherished experience as an actor. He was so helpful and kind to me. It was like being part of a marvellous family. It’s always a pleasure to see this film again, as it brings me back to a very important period of my life in the Eternal City. Thank you, Bernardo. With affection, Allen

Allen Midgette, from the Estoril Film Festival catalogue, December 2008

 

As I jokingly said before about The Grim Reaper, I believe that while my aesthetic idea is of a world that’s full-frontal, solid, Romanesque, chiaroscuro, statuesque, in full relief, Bertolucci’s idea is more elegant and modern, it’s an impressionistic idea, since he draws his visual inspiration from the French impressionists, and also from French cinema.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Una visione del mondo epico-religiosa, Bianco e Nero, No. 6, XXV, June 1964