Death suggests the ultimate end for an individual and it often travels together with fear stemming from awareness of the unknown destination after the heart ceases to beat. The destination after death has been taught by religious leaders for several millennia and frequently the tales after death include those of devils, demons, and other scary creatures that embed fear in the listeners. Tales told in regards to life after death reveal, as many religious leaders have suggested, that the destination is based on the choices made while alive. Thus, these choices better have a moral direction where the person abides to the rules of the society, or consequences might be dire when the heart halts. However, when death arrives to a poor soul those who live must deal with the remains of the deceased, which heavily will affect the destination thereafter.
Bernardo Bertolucci's tale La Commare Secca opens with the camera in a tilted lower angle on a bridge while the sound of a car swooshes by, as some pages are thrown over the edge of the bridge. The camera pans with the pages that drift with the wind, which gives the audience a good view of the Tiber river and the apartment complexes across the river. Increasingly the wind speeds up the movement of the falling pages as they blow along the man-made river bank. The pages appear to be newspaper pages as they get stuck in the high grass. Some pages struggle to get free from the grass as the wind keeps tearing at them. Slowly the panning camera moves out of focus and then back into focus as it's attention is aimed at the drifting pages. Suddenly the camera stops it's panning motion, and playfully soothing music appears in the background. The camera has discovered a body, a dead body of a woman laying face down in the grass as the pages drift over her body. The camera zooms out and gives the audience another view of the river while keeping the body of the woman in the lower right corner of the framed image, which is followed by the title.
The story that Bertolucci depicts is based on a story by the late artist, philosopher, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and he gives the story an honest portrayal. Brilliantly Bertolucci begins with the audience discovering the body, not a character in the story, but through the camera the audience is making a macabre discovery of what seems to be a murder. Newspaper pages give the bizarre discovery a true, yet grotesque analogy of the situation, as the dead woman is not the only story, but her story is surrounded by numerous similar stories. Yet, the dead woman's story manifests itself through the presence of her body.
An investigations follows the discovery of the dead woman, as the police begin to question suspects for information that could lead to the capture of the murderer. The interrogations of the suspects are filmed in the perspective of the audience, as if the viewer were the cross-examiner or present in the room. Several suspects are brought in for questioning such as a young unemployed man, a freeloader, a soldier, a drifter, and two teenagers. In the cross-examination the suspects are asked who they are, how old they are, where they come from, where were they before they ended up in the vicinity of the murder, and why they were at the area of the murder. Each person gives a detailed description after they are more or less cooperative with the police. The narrative accounts from the suspects are displayed as flashbacks to the audience, as the audience is allowed to make their own judgment based on the accounts.
The suspects all are given the opportunity tell their story, but they are never free from suspicion from the audience or the police. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time has burdened all suspects with an internal fear of merely being under suspicion, as they are all aware of the seriousness of the situation. There is also more fundamental power at work, the power of moral enlightenment provided by a catholic upbringing. In some it is more evident than others, as some of the suspects have a dubious background and former experiences with law enforcement. In addition, the suspects know all too well that being in a park at night is often connected with some immoral or indecent act. The stories within the story give the audience several insightful perceptions of the 1960s Italian lifestyle and culture and also on human interaction. This enhances character development in the film, which is essential as it will eventually lead to how the audience perceives each character -- guilty or not.
La Commare Secca was Bertolucci's first feature which he framed poetically as each scene provides more than what meets the eye. This visual poetry, which could be seen in the opening scene offered the world great promise of his talent. He later made films such as Il Conformista (1970), 1900 (1976), and Sheltering Sky (1990), which are all wonderful films. The organization of the flashbacks in La Commare Secca brings a vivid visual expression of the story in it's entirety, as the characters avoid everything connected with the bestial act. This is thanks to Bertolucci's understanding of human behavior in Italian culture, which is heavily influenced by the Catholic Church and family. In addition, the film has strong influences of Pasolini, which was desired by the producer. Ultimately, Bertolucci leaves the world with a cinematic experience that is visually stunning and brave, as it will leave the viewers thinking for some time.