I Knew Her Well (Io la conoscevo bene)

Director: Antonio Pietrangeli
Screenplay: Ruggero Maccari, Antonio Pietrangeli, Ettore Scola
Stars: Stefania Sandrelli (Adriana Astarelli), Mario Adorf (Emilio Ricci, aka Lunk), Jean-Claude Brialy (Dario Marchionni), Joachim Fuchsberger (The Writer), Nino Manfredi (Cianfanna), Enrico Maria Salerno (Roberto), Ugo Tognazzi (Gigi Baggini), Karin Dor (Barbara, the lady friend of Adriana), Franco Fabrizi (Paganelli), Turi Ferro (Il commissario), Robert Hoffmann (Antonio Marais), Franco Nero (Italo, the garage attendant), Véronique Vendell (Alice Stendhal), Franca Polesello (Maria, the usherette)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1965
Country: Italy
I Knew Her Well Criterion Collection Blu-ray
I Knew Her WellThe title of Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well (Io la conoscevo bene), a tragic portrait of a party girl’s days and nights in swinging ’60s Rome, is laden with irony and misdirection. We could begin with the “I,” which suggests a singular narrative perspective on the main character, Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli), the “Her” of the title, but that is hardly the case. There are many men in Adriana’s life during the course of the film, none of whom know her well (most of them won’t know her for more than a night), but there is no singular “I”—unless it refers to either the external presence of the film’s author or Adriana herself, who comes to know herself and doesn’t like what she finds. And, of course, the title cannily exploits the dual meaning of “knowing” someone—in either a purely sexual sense or in a close, emotionally intimate way. And this contributes further to the ironic layering of meaning, in that the “I” could refer to each of the men who knew her sexually while also referring to Adriana, who eventually comes to know herself. She is simultaneously in the first and third person—the center of the story, but always outside of her own experience.

It is possible that the title refers to the film’s most important scene, one that takes place almost exactly in the middle of the narrative and provides a fulcrum on which the story and its tone then pivot into increasingly darker territory. It opens with Adriana lounging in the bed of a wealthy, middle-age-handsome writer (Joachim Fuchsberger) who, having “known” her the previous night, has little interest in her the next morning (he is too busy hanging a picture to pay her much attention). The scene begins to shift when Adriana pulls a sheet of paper out of his typewriter and begins reading something he wrote about a girl named Milena. At this point, the writer begins to describe Milena in painfully direct detail, making it obvious—to both us and Adriana—that he is describing her:

Trouble is, she likes everything. She’s always happy. She desires nothing, envies no one, is curious about nothing. You can’t surprise her. She doesn’t notice the humiliations, though they happen to her every day. It all rolls off her back, like some waterproof material. Zero ambition. No moral code. Not even a whore’s love of money. Yesterday and tomorrow don’t exist for her. Even living for today would mean too much planning, so she lives for the moment. Sunbathing, listening to records, and dancing are her sole activities. The rest of the time she’s mercurial and capricious, always needing brief new encounters with anyone at all, just never with herself.

Adriana’s realization that he is talking about her is one of the film’s most emotionally rending scenes, as we can see the pain of recognition in her face as she asks if that’s how he really sees her, as a “dimwit.” Unfortunately, up until that point in the film, there has been little evidence that she is otherwise, and despite Sandrelli’s genial, open-faced performance, we cannot see Adriana with much depth at all. She is exactly what the writer has described, even as we recognize that his description derives from his own powerful position as a wealthy, male intellectual in a deeply patriarchal culture. His description is dismissive and condescending, but it’s also terribly accurate, which is why Adriana responds to it with a kind of sadness that we have not seen during the previous hour.

The film’s tone shifts after that, as Adriana’s carefree lifestyle hits increasingly more fractious bumps. In fact, the very next affair she has is with a young man named Antonio (Robert Hoffmann) who, over post-coital martinis, confesses to Adriana that he is deeply in love with another girl whose parents don’t want him to see her, so could she please call and pretend to be a friend so he could speak with her? Adriana does as she is asked, but there is clear pain in her face as she does it, perhaps because she is finally beginning to realize that her raucous life of one-night stands and perpetually meaningless relationships is not morally irrelevant, but is in fact taking a toll on her very being. We have watched her carouse her way through the Roman nightlife, ostensibly in pursuit of stardom as an actress, with each stop along the way marked by her being used by someone. She is never in control of her own life, but always deferring to someone, whether it be her amoral agent (Nino Manfredi) who convinces her to plant a fictionalized story about herself in a gossip magazine to get noticed and all but pimps her out to his friends, or a female friend who insists that she get an abortion, cruelly despising Adriana’s ruminating about keeping the baby.

From a thematic perspective, this is all crucial, as it paints a portrait of an innocent being used and tossed away by everyone around her. Adriana, as we later learn, is a country girl who left her desolate family farm to pursue the bright lights of the big city, a place that is eating her alive even though she doesn’t fully recognize it. And it is precisely that lack of self-recognition and agency that ultimately weighs the film down. Sandrelli, who had already made an impact as the underage object of Marcello Mastroianni’s lust in Pietro Germi’s black comedy Divorce Italian Style (1961) and would go on to become a cornerstone of modern Italian cinema, is an appealing actress, and she invests Adriana with as much humanity as she can, but the character is little more than a one-note cypher who fits all too neatly into the writer’s condescending description. There are a few revelatory moments of both tenderness and despair, particularly a sweet (nonsexual) encounter she has with a kindly boxer known as Lunk (Mario Adorf), and a scene in which footage that was shot of her at a party is used to turn her into a joke on the big screen, but too many scenes simply repeat the same basic premise of her being exploited by those around her, without any sense of what she actually thinks (she does rebuke a few of the more salacious offers, which demonstrates that she has her limits). If director Antonio Pietrangeli, who also cowrote the script with Ruggero Maccari and Ettore Scola, had found a way to convey Adriana’s internal world with more force, I Knew Her Well could have been a devastating portrait of life in a moral void.

Much like Fellini’s much more famous La dolce vita (1960), the film takes place in Rome when the Italian economy was soaring and a new sense of freedom was in the air, which many Italians embraced with great enthusiasm and moral abandon. The backdrop of I Knew Her Well is a world of roaring sports cars, lavish dinners, and packed parties at huge mansions—all of which, like Adriana, has a surface beauty that hides the emptiness beneath. One of the film’s most powerful sequences, which takes place at a large party, only tangentially involves Adriana, focusing instead on an aging actor named Gigi Baggini (Ugo Tognazzi) who, at the behest of his former protégé-turned-big-time-star (Enrico Maria Salerno), tries to impress a movie producer with a frantic tap dance that very nearly kills him. Baggini’s desperation to get hired mixed with his mortal fear of being forgotten and the callousness with which he is treated by those who command the power he once had conveys the film’s worldview better than any of the scenes involving Adriana, which is a problem, especially for a film that is usually framed as a feminist response to the male-centric, often chauvinistic commedia all’italiana. Adriana’s essential vacuity, central as it is the film’s point, doesn’t give us enough to hold onto, so by the time the narrative is winding its way to its climax, everything has blurred into one long rush of nothing.

I Knew Her Well Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioItalian Linear PCM monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interview with actress Stefania Sandrelli
  • Video interview with film scholar Luca Barattoni about the career of director Antonio Pietrangeli
  • Archival footage of Sandrelli’s audition
  • Trailer
  • Essay by journalist and author Alexander Stille
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 23, 2016

    Making its Region 1 debut, I Knew Her Well looks superb in Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration, which was completed in partnership with the Cineteca di Bologna. The film was transferred in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio from the original 35mm camera negative and a 35mm fine-grain positive (I assume the latter was needed because some portions of the negative were somehow damaged; I could not detect at any point while watching the film when one source or the other was used). The black-and-white image is sharp and well detailed with a solid celluloid feel. Blacks are dark and shadow detail, so important in the night scenes, is excellent. Digital restoration has the image looking very clean, with only the slightest signs of age and wear. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the soundtrack negative and digitally restored to removes bumps, cracks, and ambient hiss. The soundtrack is very clean overall, and it does a nice job presenting the dialogue and ambient sound effects, as well as the regular presence of mid-’60s Italian pop music. The soundtrack is a bit tinny and hollow at times (you can tell a lot of it was recorded in postproduction and most of the dialogue was looped), but that is inherent to the original elements and not at all uncommon for European films of this vintage.
    To put the film in its proper historical context, we get two engaging new video interviews. The first is with actress Stefania Sandrelli (9 min.), who, half a century later, is still quite active in the film world. She talks about her early career and her experience working on the film and the impact it had on her own life. The second interview is with film scholar Luca Barattoni (22 min.), author of Italian Post-Realist Cinema (2014), who discusses the career of director Antonio Pietrangeli (who drowned only a few years after the release of I Knew Her Well), especially his depiction of women in his films. Also on the disc is 5 minutes of footage of Sandrelli’s audition and a theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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