Hello, Cruel World

Published February 11, 2016

STEFANIA SANDRELLI AS ADRIANA ASTARELLI IN I KNEW HER WELL. STILL COURTESY OF JANUS FILMS.

In Italian filmmaker Antonio Pietrangeli’s newly restored 1965 movie I Knew Her Well, there’s a scene in which the protagonist Adriana reads the typewritten pages of a novelist with whom she’s having a fling. They detail his encounter with a beautiful but daffy woman. She likes dancing, sunbathing, and listening to records. Anything goes with her, he writes. The man claims that it’s about someone he knew long ago, but Adriana can read between the lines. “Am I Milena?” she asks the man lightly. “Is that how you see me? As a bit of a fool?”

Played by Italian leading actress Stefania Sandrelli, Adriana evokes pathos, but also displays winsome verve. With her large, liquid eyes, 19-year-old Sandrelli gives a luminous, natural performance in what may be her best role to date.

Adriana is a fledging actress in the changing Italy of the 1960s. Her story, which unfolds over 19 discrete episodes, chronicles her struggles, both professionally and personally. Adriana sports the latest fashions and a different hairstyle in almost every vignette, so it’s clear that some time has passed between scenes, but not how much. As such, it’s a slice of life, but it’s one that has been imagined masterfully and in precise detail. As she films a galoshes commercial (which shows her calves and feet only) while wearing an evening dress just because she can, as she befriends a sad-sack boxer after a fight, and as she babysits a neighbor’s child, Adriana emerges as a whimsical, endearing, and decent character.  That I Knew Her Well (the title is ironic) is full of such moments helps sweeten the experience of watching it—and diverts attention from the fact that that the vision Pietrangeli puts forth is of a society in which life for women is nearly unbearable.

What Adriana is really longing for is an opportunity for healthy self-expression and a chance to prove she’s capable in some way. These are not grand desires, but rather reasonable ones. It’s precisely Adriana’s lighthearted, happy disposition and the fact that she expects so little that makes the world she exists in seem so cruel.

I KNEW HER WELL IS SCREENING TONIGHT AT FILM FORUM IN NEW YORK.