Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well plays like a mix between Fellini’s oneiric mid-’60s films and the kitchen-sink realism of the British New Cinema. Like Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, it utilizes a fragmented, flashback narrative structure to play with spatiotemporal particulars and prevents a neat chronology from taking shape. In fact, Pietrangeli furthers the concept by constructing the film around Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli), a teenage, small-town Italian woman, whose memories of past traumas continue to grip her psychology, as when a broken bottle at work yields her recollection of a previous altercation where a man tightly gripped her wrist, forcing her to drop a bottle of alcohol. Pietrangeli’s structuring logic proceeds from a philosophical, rather than character-based, foundation, causing a chill to pervade the entire film, even when the sun shines brightly on a desolate beach, as it does during the opening tracking shot.
Both films deal with a protagonist being welcomed and then dismissed from an industry that’s rife with corruption, nepotism, and unfeeling bottom-liners. In I Knew Her Well, the combination of advertising and movie stardom delivers a one-two punch to Adriana, who begins as a naïf-ish usher at a local movie theater. During screenings, she stands and chats with fellow employees, oblivious to the concept of art as an object to be studied. Rather, for Adriana and her friends, the cinema is only about emulation and fame. On this point, Pietrangeli remains unclear whether Adriana’s naïveté is contemptible or tragic, though the mise-en-scène provides hints since billboards and adverts adorn theaters and street corners pervasively enough to resemble military propaganda. In fact, when Adriana pursues stardom by moving to Rome, her choice recalls a similar one made in King Vidor’s The Big Parade by John Gilbert’s rich kid, who joined the ranks because of the local fervor surrounding blind-faith patriotism.
Crucially, I Knew Her Well reroutes its critique away from an exclusive attack on corporate greed or myth and into the gendered implications of Adriana’s plight, forcing her to contend with male pawing from levels both high and low. After she spends a night with local cutie Dario (Jean-Claude Brialy), she awakes to discover he’s skipped the hotel bill, leaving her to pawn off a bracelet he gave her the night before. Later on, when she’s brought into a police station for questioning and learns the bracelet was stolen, the commissioner (Turi Ferro) explains that Dario is missing, causing Adriana to respond with relief saying he was “funny.” The commissioner scoffs back: “Prisons are full of funny people.” Not unlike the film industry, which seems to be Pietrangeli’s point—a business that’s successively treated as a vile, ideological trap no different than a military or prison, especially in relation to the ways capitalism cultivates female longings for power.
Although I Knew Her Well consistently acknowledges Adriana’s need to be looked at, it’s also persistent to reveal what she’s seeing—and it does so in surprising spaces that double for the cinematic experience. Waiting for a train with a failed boxer, Emilio (Mario Adorf), the couple pause their conversation to glimpse the station agent chatting with a passenger, both of whom are neatly framed by the platform. After they pass, Adriana resumes with her pleasant, innocuous, inquiries (“Is your girlfriend happy you’re a boxer?”), without acknowledging the specificity of the moment or why either stopped to overhear what was being said, emphasizing the couple’s dry exchange of information as being akin to Adriana’s thoughtless pursuit of fame.
Pietrangeli clearly empathizes with Adriana’s failings, but the filmmaker doesn’t provide a clear articulation of the reasons certain women succumb to systemic promises of happiness, nor whether Adriana (who becomes Adry Astin for her 15 minutes of fame) should be held accountable for her own failings. In fact, a scene where Adriana returns to the small-town theater to see herself on the screen, but is humiliated by the audience’s laughter, is a hollow irony for her full-circle journey, having travelled far only to end up bruised and battered back on her own turf. This fault by no means sinks the film’s evident power and sophistication, as Adriana’s overall conflict recalls Luchino Visconti’s remark that, in the case of an act of violence, the system’s always to blame, not the individual. If Pietrangeli feels similarly, I Knew Her Well fails to convincingly materialize comparable insights.
Misery has rarely looked as luminous as it does in Criterion’s 4K presentation, which once again challenges the standard for restoration work by looking cleaner and sharper than half of the films currently playing in theaters. Every square inch of Antonio Pietrangeli’s shots has been given what appears to be painstaking attention, so that even the tiniest text on advertisements in backgrounds is as clear and in focus as the faces in the foreground. Grain remains finely calibrated and present throughout and saturation in darker colors is easily discernible from slightly lighter shades, even in black and white. Such a masterwork of film preservation calls for the film to be taken even more seriously, as the deep-focus cinematography reveals details that have been murky and unidentifiable in prior iterations. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is nothing special, but dialogue, music, and diegetic sound are still mixed without fault.
Unfortunately, the supplements lack the same sort of comprehension and rigor as the A/V, though there’s a nice and informative contemporary interview with Stefania Sandrelli, who explains her take on Adriana’s ambitions and anguish, as well as her recollections of the production. Film scholar Luca Barattoni offers a comprehensive and lucid take on Pietrangeli’s career both before and after I Knew Her Well, though the conversation predictably goes to issues of neorealism and national cinemas. These kinds of histories are informative for their biographical detail, but there’s little conceptual specificity given to Pietrangeli oeuvre; instead, he’s lumped into the modernist new waves of the era. Barattoni notes the film is "feminist," but neglects to explicate how feminism fits into either Pietrangeli’s other works or comparable films (say, Antonioni’s) of the period. Rounding out the disc is footage of Sandrelli’s original audition, the film’s trailer, and an essay by journalist and author Alexander Stille.
Few films from the 1960s that have been absent on home video for this long arrive looking like they were shot yesterday, but Criterion’s new Blu-ray for I Knew Her Well is such an exception, though the scant assortment of extras keep this release from being a triumph.