The Criterion Files: La Commare Secca/Rashomon

Alright, gang: I’m crying “uncle”. I set out to deliver one installment of the Criterion Files every single week, but I’m tapping out and reestablishing the series as bi-weekly. Apart from the fact that watching two Criterion films every week is something of a tall order on top of my other movie watching and writing activities, I only update up to three times a week– which means threatening to clutter up the main page of ACVF with Criterion Files entries. Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world, but I’m pacing myself and spacing out the Criterion Files going forward from here, so unless circumstances favor a back-to-back update in the series, expect me to talk about the great films in the Criterion Collection every other week.

Which brings me to this latest Criterion Files post, which requires little preamble for anyone who’s seen both of these movies– or who, having seen Rashomon, can perhaps guess at La Commare Secca‘s basic conceit. There may be no Criterion File entry for the rest of the series’ existence in which the two films discussed correlate so perfectly as these two do. After all, Kurosawa’s absolutely essential multi-narrative story of justice, deceit, and the nature of truth and perspective is often thought to have influenced Bertolucci’s very first motion picture– though the Italian maestro denies having ever seen Rashomon prior to making La Commare Secca— which is where we’ll start this edition of the Criterion Files.

La Commare Secca, 1962, Bernardo Bertolucci

While I think the comparisons between Bertolucci’s premiere film and Kurosawa’s own movie– which was, at the release of La Commare Secca, over ten years old– are completely valid, and absolutely should be made, the reality is that both movies treat the same central idea quite differently. La Commare Secca isn’t about the subjectivity of its numerous flashback sequences, brought about as police officers interview potential suspects in the killing of a prostitute. Bertolucci is far more generous with fact than Kurosawa; while the latter director’s film examines the complexity and essence of truth, the former’s is instead intent on dissecting its central lies in a similar fashion. La Commare Secca doesn’t put it to its audience to play detective and discern which characters are being forthcoming. In point of fact, we’re told outright of  of each individual’s omissions of truth, though only one character here is actually guilty of murder while everyone else has committed some other indiscretion– like Teodoro, the soldier, who spent his day making unwanted and lascivious advances on women, yet claims he only took a casual stroll through the streets of Rome.

So where Kurosawa wants us to come to our own conclusions about his film’s events, Bertolucci wants us to draw meaning from La Commare Secca‘s portrayal of rank dishonesty. That simple shift in focus changes the entire film, making it more of a distant cousin to Rashomon rather than a European forgery. The reasons for exposing the cast’s falsehoods are varied; Bertolucci isn’t simply trying to uncover the inherently treacherous makeup of the criminal heart, mostly because he sees each of these characters as human. Some of them are grotesque and vile, some of them are simply pathetic, but they’re all irrevocably real in their own fashions. Nor is he trying to critique or satirize the shapelessness of police work and underscore its shortcomings, though you could certainly argue that these elements are still important to the overall film.

But it’s the way Bertolucci’s depiction of truth and lies echoes in La Commare Secca‘s cinematic DNA that helps the picture stand out in cinema canon. Bertolucci’s film creates distance between itself and the neo-realist conventions of Italian filmmaking in a number of ways, breaking away from the aesthetic in structure and technique. It’s lyrical, a visual poem, and doesn’t strictly adhere to rigid representations of reality; notably, the end of each vignette is signaled by a rainstorm, as well as brief clips of the deceased prostitute preparing to leave her apartment to her doom prior to the beginning of the film, at which point a new character’s story unfolds. At the same time, some aspects of the film do jibe with the tenets of neo-realism, such as in Bertolucci’s decision to cast unknown, non-professional actors in every role. Maybe you could just claim that in doing so, he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, but the intentional, careful choices he makes in building his film from the ground up reflects throughout the story and give it its own unique temperament when placed side-by-side with Kurosawa’s picture and make it worthy of remembrance.

Rashomon, 1950, Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa’s film, on the other hand, could well be remembered just for the massive influence it’s had on cinema for over half a century. From Courage Under Fire, to Hero, to certain episodes of The X-FilesRashomon probably deserves the Criterion title just for its use of a non-linear narrative alone. When we consider just how much that narrative choice has reverberated globally and across decades, it’s hard from the outset to think on the film in terms of anything other than its status as a game-changer. But the Criterion Files aren’t just a place for discussing how each title has helped move film forward as a medium, and Rashmon is such a rich and complicated film in its own right that simply examining its effect on the cinematic form seems somewhat wasteful– and, given how much has been written by others about that aforementioned influence, maybe a bit fruitless.

More interesting to me is how Rashomon stands out as one of the best examples of cubism in film history. La Commera Secca doesn’t provide its viewers with multiple fractious perspectives of the same event– it simply outlines the activities of its cast surrounding that event. Rashomon, on the other hand, goes back to its central, plot-driving conflict four times over the course of the film’s hour and a half running time, and each version of the tale– as told by a samurai, a bandit, the samurai’s wife, and a woodcutter– differs drastically from the others. Cubism traditionally involves breaking up an object and reassembling it so as to view it from numerous different viewpoints; if you need a frame of reference, simply turn to the works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Just as their works (and those of others) rearrange their subjects to offer varying perspectives on it, so too does Kurosawa structure his film so that we never see the incident in the forest the same way twice.

But there’s more to Rashomon‘s cubist tendencies than that. Not content to simply treat the confrontation between the samurai and the bandit– with the former’s wife caught between them, and with the woodcutter watching from safety– as a jigsaw puzzle to be cut apart and reorganized, Kurosawa also intentionally refrains from shooting his characters from the same angles more than a couple of times. In the opening sequence alone, we see the Woodcutter from each of his sides (front, back, left, and right) and from varying distances. Partially, this can be chalked up to what became Kurosawa’s trademark visual touches, namely axial cutting, cutting in motion, and wipes, but there’s more to the array of angles and positions used here than simple stylistic touches. Kurosawa’s giving his movie shape, molding our perception of its cinematic space just as the four main characters bend our perception of the truth through their misdirection and manipulation. Like Bertolucci would do twelve years later, Kurosawa brilliantly crafted his film so that the central themes of his narrative would resonate within the bones of the movie itself; it’s therefore not out of bounds to identify Rashomon as the blueprint for La Commare Secca. Which makes the fact that the two films are so very different despite their shared concept nothing short of remarkable.

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6 thoughts on “The Criterion Files: La Commare Secca/Rashomon

    • Two good films to start with. They’re really accessible and showcase the whole gamut of what makes Kurosawa Kurosawa. Let me know what you think, Sam!

  1. I’ve seen Rashomon, and I agree it’s a great film, deserving of inclusion in the Criterion Collection. It’s interesting in that the plot is actually very small; what makes the film is the different perspectives on this singular event and the lies the characters tell — possibly to themselves as well as to the judges.

    • Right on. It’s the ambiguity that makes Rashomon so great, and I’m with you on the characters likely being just as guilty of misleading themselves as they are of misleading the judges. I think that’s part of what’s going on in the climax, too, with the woodcutter and the commoner.

  2. Great blog! I’ve seen Rashomon several times (how can anyone be content to see it just once?), but I had never even heard of La Commare Secca until two days ago when I watched it on Hulu. The comparisons to Rashomon are valid and interesting, but my first thought after the Bertolucci/Pasolini film ended was “Oh, what an inevitably dark sequel to Nights of Cabiria!” Which made even more sense when I remembered that Pasolini had a hand in Fellini’s film, too. My next thought was “wow – La Commare Secca has the most haunting music I’ve ever heard in any film not made by Fassbinder.”

    • Thanks Jonathan, and glad you dropped a line here! You’re right on about Rashomon; one viewing is never enough, which I think speaks to the film’s quality as much as its mystery. If Kurosawa’s narrative wasn’t any good, would we really care to revisit it that much? Probably not. But it’s woven so tightly and the truth is masked so deftly that we can’t help but go back to it.

      Interesting comparison between La Commare Secca and Nights of Cabiria— what a grim end for her considering the note that film ends on. But identifying Pasolini’s involvement in both is spot on. I hadn’t considered that myself.

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