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.