DIR: Bernardo Bertolucci
Based on a story and co-scripted by Pier Paolo Pasolini (the genuis filmmaker behind Accatone, 1961, Pigsty, 1969 and Salò, 1975), Bertolucci's feature debut recalls Rashômon (Kurosawa, 1951) in its concept, but its execution is distinctly within the oeuvre of the emerging auteur who would one day give us Il Conformista (1970), a politically driven masterpiece about friendly assassination. This film opens on a bridge overlooking the Tiber river. We are in Rome, and a prostitute is dead. Her body lies in a park by the river. Who killed her? That's the question addressed by a series of multiple-perspective vignettes in The Grim Reaper. The narrative is told from the point of view of several suspects, all of whom were in the park on the night of her death. One of them is the killer. It's more than just a real life game of Cluedo, however, as the film is geared more towards the personal relationships of the accused.
The title couldn't be more apt. Death is a stark shadow inhabited by every narrator in The Grim Reaper; they are accused of its untimely arrival on a young whore and now each must prove their innocence. The film spends approximately ten minutes with each suspect, detailing the events of their day up until that fateful nightfall. The day, despite containing several different stories, has two recurring certainties: it will rain, and we will see the prostitute preparing for her work. It's interesting that Bertolucci makes the decision to break from traditional flashback convention and intervene in the narrative by showing us the prostitute assembling herself. These segments don't belong to any of the suspects; they belong to the filmmaker. Perhaps he wishes for us to see that despite the unreliability of these stories her life is a constant and has one path. She, like the rain, is now just a moment in time.
The DoP for this picture is Giovanni Narzisi, and his work is truly beautiful. The Grim Reaper is not perfect (Bertolucci was never one for tightly constructed narratives, but most have more momentum and fluidity than this) but it is well choreographed and engaging; the camerawork is smooth and adventurous, and the architecture of the city backdrop wonderfully diverse. Bertolucci was only 21 when he made the picture so it's guaranteed that he had a guiding inspiration. Pasolini is the obvious influence, as Bertolucci trained under him and served as production assistant on Accatone. But I also think it's fair to flag up Bertolucci's father, Attilio, who was a major Italian poet and teacher of art history. From what I've read of his work Attilio seems profoundly concerned with the proto-state of emotion and nature, by which I mean he is unpretentious in his passion for life, love and death. He's in touch with instinct and the ethereal, an accolade with which I would also credit his son, who made some visually ravishing and sexually vehement pictures. I'll recite a line from Attilio's poem Let Me Bleed, from the best translation I can find; Leave me bleeding on the road sull'antipolvere the dust on the grass, heart throbbing in his working rhythm. It reminded me of The Grim Reaper, and the prostitute whose life represents the beginning of a multi-faceted investigation into the lives of others.
Because that's what the film is more than anything; an essay on perspective. We never see the face of the cop interviewing the suspects but we are given the privilege of observing contradictions in the testimonies that each narrator builds as their defense. Bertolucci shows us the truth and the lie, juxtaposed, with the voiceover (used sparingly and effectively) providing a slightly different slant on reality that serves to paint the suspect in a fairer light. It seems that The Grim Reaper is more concerned with examining the mystery rather than solving it, and that may be where the lack of momentum arises from - although extended tracking shots in each segment give them rhythm and continuity. It's just that there's no real urgency to the film and it ultimately feels like a stepping stone for Bertolucci. But as a debut feature it's surprisingly confident and frequently engaging; technically accomplished and heralding great things to come.
The image actually looks very sharp on DVD. The remastering job has left hardly any grain; the photography is best served, as it looks crisp and detailed. It's a sadly vanilla package though - the only extra is a trailer.
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