Getting to Know
I Knew Her Well

Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well may not be familiar to international viewers today, but it ranks among the most important and acclaimed Italian films of the sixties. It was made during a period of major economic growth in the nation’s film industry, when Italian cinema was becoming a huge export and directors were becoming increasingly emboldened to try new narrative approaches. Though there was no centralized New Wave in Italy during the sixties as there was in such countries as France, Japan, and Czechoslovakia, the films by such disparate, stylistically distinct directors as Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Pietro Germi, and Dino Risi were reflective of the overall shift in European art filmmaking, darker toned works that dealt with the existential crisis brought about by a dizzyingly modernizing continent. Pietrangeli, quite fluent in French culture, was perhaps the Italian director of this period most influenced by the French New Wave. I Knew Her Well, with its rapid editing and chronologically fragmented structure, has a distinctly modernist, French feel to its portrayal of a young rural woman (Stefania Sandrelli) trying to establish a career as a model and actress in Rome. Pietrangeli’s last completed feature, it would prove to be the culmination of his career-long interest in the plight of women.

As neither mother nor wife, Sandrelli’s Adriana is an uncommon female protagonist for an Italian film of the era. The first scene, set on the Ostia beach near Rome, appears to aggressively objectify her bikini-clad body, but it becomes clear that the film takes the fetishizing camera gaze as one of its primary subjects. Pietrangeli intended Adriana to be the prototypical constructed image of woman, as created by the controlling male spectator. Throughout the film’s nineteen discrete episodes, she is treated as a barely animate object by a succession of mostly bourgeois men: agents, directors, writers, and other barnacles on the hull of an entertainment industry that seeks only to commodify and exploit her. It’s a venal business, as underlined in the scene set at a decadent party, where an aging actor, played by Ugo Tognazzi (La Cage aux Folles), is forced to do a degrading dance on a table until he nearly drops dead. Despite the clearly corrupt and predatory nature of show business as it’s depicted in I Knew Her Well, Pietrangeli leaves Adriana’s response purposely obscured; the film never gives voice to her internal monologue. This keeps her at a distance from us, emphasizing the fact that she is unknowable—despite Pietrangeli’s frequent use of the close-up. In this way, the film’s title is tantalizingly ironic: no one, including us, really knows Adriana, and the despairing ending doesn’t change that.

Meet Antonio Pietrangeli

Antonio Pietrangeli was a driving force in Italian cinema years before he ever worked on a movie. Pietrangeli began his film career as a critic, just like one of the figures he most admired, French director Fran¨ois Truffaut. A constant advocate in the late thirties and forties for a movement toward authenticity in Italian cinema, Pietrangeli (who originally studied to be a doctor) wrote ideologically fueled articles for the Italian journal Cinema and the French La revue du cinéma that rejected the notion of movies as escapism and insisted on the political importance of realism on-screen. “In art there is no innovation or renewal if not starting from the extreme validity of the real and of truth,” he wrote. As a consequence, Pietrangeli is widely credited, along with another journalist turned director, Giuseppe De Santis (Bitter Rice), with having helped lay the groundwork for the Italian neorealist movement, which began in earnest in the late 1940s, with films by Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Roberto Rossellini (Rome Open City), and Luchino Visconti (La terra trema), and ended up having an incalculable influence on the history of world cinema.

Pietrangeli entered the film industry as an assistant on Visconti’s pulpy-realist Ossessione (1943) and also worked on the screenplays for such neorealist landmarks as La terra trema (1948) and Rossellini’s Europa ’51 (1952). His directorial debut, Il sole negli occhi, was released in 1953—notably, the year that Italian film scholars usually identify as the end of neorealism. In this drama about a peasant girl who goes to Rome to work as a maid and ends up a defiantly single mother, Pietrangeli was moving away from the stricter realist tenets of the movement. Perhaps even more importantly, he was establishing one of the recurring themes in his career: the plight of women, marginalized both in contemporary Italian society and in cinema. He further explored these ideas in films that skirted the line between drama and social satire, such as Adua e le compagne (1960), which concerns prostitutes trying to escape their past after their brothel closes, and La parmigiana (1963), a comic portrait of a young woman who’s forced out of her village because of scandal and decides to live a life independent of men.

Pietrangeli was also deeply invested in surveying the cultural and financial landscape of contemporary Italy, which was still going through rapid modernization twenty years after the end of World War II and the resultant “economic miracle.” I Knew Her Well, which Italian film scholar Roberto Silvestri has called “the most important movie of the 1960s,” was perhaps the greatest synthesis of Pietrangeli’s interests, focusing on a beautiful young woman from rural Italy trying to make it as a model and actress in a materialistic, emotionally mechanized Rome.

Tragically, Pietrangeli would never complete another film. He died in 1968, at age forty-nine, in a drowning accident, while he was filming Come, quando, perché, which was ultimately finished by director Valerio Zurlini.


1953   Empty Eyes (Il sole negli occhi)
1954   Girandola 1910 (part of the omnibus film Mid-Century Loves)
1955   The Bachelor (Lo scapolo)
1957   It Happened in Rome (Souvenir d’Italie)
1958   March’s Child (Nata di marzo)
1960   Adua and Her Friends (Adua e le compagne)
1961   Ghosts of Rome (Fantasmi a Roma)
1963   The Girl from Parma (La parmigiana)
1963   The Visit (La visita)
1964   The Magnificent Cuckold (Il magnifico cornuto)
1965   I Knew Her Well (Io la conoscevo bene)
1966   Fata Marta (part of the omnibus film The Queens)
1969   How, When, and with Whom (Come, quando, perché; completed by Valerio Zurlini)

Stefania Sandrelli

The delicately beautiful Stefania Sandrelli was one of the most sought-after actresses in Italy in the sixties. After winning a beauty pageant in 1960 in the Tuscan city of Viareggio, where she was raised, Sandrelli became a cover girl for the famous fashion magazine Le ore. The director Pietro Germi, having seen her magazine photos, called her in for a screen test and eventually cast her in her breakthrough role, as the object of Marcello Mastroianni’s desire in the Oscar-winning Divorce Italian Style (1961). For the rest of the decade, Sandrelli continued to appear in Germi films, including Seduced and Abandoned (1964) and L’immorale (1967), but she was also hired by other filmmakers: by Antonio Pietrangeli for I Knew Her Well (1965), probably her greatest role; by Bernardo Bertolucci for Partner (1968); and by Carlo Lizzani for The Bandit (1969). Her fruitful collaborative relationship with Bertolucci also resulted in her most widely recognized role, as Giulia in The Conformist (1970), as well as significant parts in 1900 (1976) and Stealing Beauty (1996). In the decades since, Sandrelli has appeared in films by such international directors as Tinto Brass, Ettore Scola, Mario Monicelli, Margarethe von Trotta, Bigas Luna, Daniel Burman, and Gabriele Muccino. She made her directorial debut in 2009 with the film Christine Christina.