Bernardo Bertolucci’s debut feature, The Grim Reaper, has been called ‘the Italian Rashomon’, but the only relation between the two is the theme of differing interpretations of a single event and their lying narrators. A prostitute is found murdered on the bank of the river Tiber in Rome. Beginning with this image, the film goes on to follow the police interrogations of potential suspects, all of whom were in a nearby park at the time of the murder.
The structure of the film is essentially a series of vignettes with the police interrogations used as a framing device. We see a small story about a gigolo mistreating his clients and a young man who robs young lovers in the park. The film highlights the difference between each person’s explanation of each section and their actual activities. The young thief, for instance, told police that he was meeting with priests to get a job recommendation when he was actually robbing people.
It’s very much a debut feature – there’s nowhere near as much visual panache as Bertolucci’s later films The Last Emperor and The Dreamers and the performances are extremely amateurish. That said, there’s one segment in which these elements come together in a really great way and that is the story of a young soldier trying to pick up women in the street. His amateurish performance has a smirking, almost Jason Schwartzmann-esque quality to it, and it really adds to the pathetic, desperate humour of the scene.
The Grim Reaper is also structurally interesting, not only in it’s vignette-style but also in it’s central conceit of showing the late prostitute getting ready for a night on the streets in a thunderstorm, which is a motif used as a connective thread through each story. While it’s not always immediately clear what’s happening, each segment soon reveals itself in an interesting way.
It’s early Bertolucci, but it reveals the beginnings of some of the themes that he would later revisit – violence towards women, lying narrators, and the uncaring attitudes of bullish men.