This prismatic portrait of the days and nights of a party girl in sixties Rome is a revelation. On the surface, I Knew Her Well, directed by Antonio Pietrangeli, plays like an inversion of La dolce vita with a woman at its center, following the gorgeous, seemingly liberated Adriana (Divorce Italian Style’s Stefania Sandrelli) as she dallies with a wide variety of men, attends parties, goes to modeling gigs, and circulates among the rich and famous. Despite its often light tone, though, the film is a stealth portrait of a suffocating culture that regularly dehumanizes people, especially women. A seriocomic character study that never strays from its complicated central figure while keeping us at an emotional remove, I Knew Her Well is one of the most overlooked films of the sixties, by turns hilarious, tragic, and altogether jaw-dropping.
Taken at face value, people's outward appearances can often belie how they truly feel inside. A simple smile or a seemingly easy-going attitude may actually hide deeper pangs of discontent or sadness. Such is the case with Adriana, the central protagonist at the heart of Antonio Pietrangeli's 'I Knew Her Well.' And just as we gradually realize that there are more somber shades lurking behind the character's blithe demeanor, we also slowly recognize darker elements of drama resting behind the director's otherwise light-hearted touch.
Episodic in structure, the film focuses on a young woman, Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli), as she attempts to break into the world of modeling and acting. Through a series of escapades, we watch the seemingly happy-go-lucky girl as she parties, dates, and takes on various gigs. But while she appears to be enjoying her capricious lifestyle, more disturbing truths are subtly exposed, revealing layers of exploitation and emptiness that lurk just beneath the surface.
From carefree dancing and fun vacations to late night joy rides and sunbathing beach days, much of the initially comedic runtime simply features Adriana moving from place to place and person to person with a smile on her face -- but this ostensibly breezy tone eventually proves to be quite deceptive. Liberally skipping through time in a collage of vignettes, the loose narrative slowly forms a larger portrait of the woman's frivolous lifestyle and her evolving efforts to break into the entertainment industry, and not all of it is particularly positive. Critical and sympathetic at the same time, Pietrangeli weaves in darker moments of unease and social commentary, layering the otherwise lighthearted affair with some increasingly powerful observations.
These murkier elements begin with a few stark asides -- like a horrific car crash that Adriana stumbles upon during a playful double date -- but soon more troubling realities begin to subtly invade her daily life as well, always hiding behind a veneer of passive contentment. As the men in her life continually use her and the cruel superficiality of the movie business becomes more apparent, themes dealing with exploitation, isolation, and shallowness all come to a head. But their full effect on Adriana remains carefully obscured as the director deliberately keeps the character at a slight distance from the audience.
We know her only through her actions and expressions, and most of the time she seems to be merely drifting spiritedly through life. Star Stefania Sandrelli is captivating in the role, using her youthful beauty to mask deeper tragedy. As the flirtatious aspiring actress, she carries a natural charm and curiosity. But the character is not oblivious to the deceptions and manipulations around here, and key glances of distress begin to hint at more devastating undercurrents.
Director Antonio Pietrangeli often uses these moments to manipulate the film's treatment of time, sneaking in brief flashbacks. Other stylistic flourishes also help to enhance the meaning of certain scenes. For instance, one sequence begins by cutting back and forth before between Adriana and a man. At first we are led to believe that both characters are in the same physical space -- but soon it's revealed that the man is actually just an actor in a film that Adriana is watching in a movie theater. Through this deliberate editing choice, Pietrangeli playfully reinforces the woman's desire to be on the big screen with him.
Likewise, a later sequence uses editing in a more dramatic fashion, cutting from one character about to have an abortion, to a woman screaming in a police station -- connecting the emotions of both sequences without literally showing us the distress of the former procedure. The director also makes frequent use of zooms and reframing camera angles, enhancing the film's treatment of space and movement, and the movie's climactic drive through the streets of Rome set to music feels strikingly modern and assured in its style and rhythm.
Through its shifting mosaic of superficial dalliances, 'I Knew Her Well' becomes an atypical character study of a woman far more complex than we are first led to believe. Despite what its title implies, the film's closing moments force us to question just how well we really did know her -- and the answer proves to be equally tragic and enlightening.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'I Knew Her Well' on Blu-ray in their standard clear keepcase with spine number 801. The BD-50 Region A disc comes packaged with a pamphlet featuring an essay by journalist Alexander Stille.
The movie is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Taken from a new 4K digital restoration from the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm fine grain positive, this is a very strong picture through and through.
The source print is in great shape with only very minor signs of age. A light to moderate layer of grain is visible in most scenes, though the picture almost looks a tad too clean in some instances. Thankfully, there are no signs of egregious noise reduction or sharpening techniques. Clarity is strong throughout, with readily apparent fine patterns and textures in clothing and objects. The grayscale is fairly well balanced with bright whites and solid black levels that avoid crushing.
Nicely restored and free from any troublesome artifacts, 'I Knew Her Well' comes to Blu-ray with a lovely transfer.
The film is presented with an Italian LPCM mono track and optional English subtitles. Inherently modest but free from any technical issues, the mix sounds quite good.
Speech is clean and relatively crisp with no balance issues. Though the track has a comparatively flat quality, the single channel of audio does a nice job of enhancing the visuals with appropriate effects. Music also plays a large role in the tone of the story, and the deceptively jaunty score and mix of pop songs come through with solid range. Thankfully, there are no pops, crackles, or background hissing to report.
'I Knew Her Well' sounds on par with other foreign releases from this time period, and while the mono mix can't compete with modern efforts, this is a very respectful and authentic track.
Criterion has put together a small but worthwhile collection of supplements, including a retrospective interview with the film's star. All of the supplements are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio and English subtitles for the foreign language portions.
Antonio Pietrangeli's 'I Knew Her Well' is a powerful character study of a deceptively complex protagonist. Through the film's seemingly light tone, the director eventually reveals more tragic realities tied to exploitation and superficial lifestyles. On the technical front, the disc features strong video and audio. And though a bit slim, the included supplements are informative and worthwhile. Pietrangeli isn't as well-known as his contemporary filmmaking peers (possibly in part due to his untimely death in 1968), but this movie easily deserves to be ranked among other Italian classics from the period. Recommended.