The Grim Reaper Review

A dead girl lies next to a flyover, her corpse collecting rubbish thrown from passing cars. Piero Piccioni’s acoustic score plays as the camera moves into a tight close-up suggesting restfulness. Yet The Grim Reaper is anything but. Once the credits are over we are thrown into the first of a series of police interrogations as they attempt to ascertain the cause of her death. We begin with an unemployed thug, a petty thief operating with two more of his kind. Later we are introduced to a pimp, sundry prostitutes, a girl-chasing soldier and various street kids. The focus, therefore, is on the underclass and the unsavoury back alleys of Rome. Each character earns their own vignette - interrupted at mid-point each time as we follow the dead girl, also a prostitute, during her final hours - and so suffuses The Grim Reaper with their own energies and rhythms. It’s a tough film, somewhere between neo-realism and the nouvelle vague, directed with a confident swagger by a debuting Bernardo Bertolucci.

The episodic structure makes sense for its inexperienced director, allowing Bertolucci to effectively produce a series of shorts, each with their own slightly different tone and approach. The episode involving the pimp, for example, taps into more melodramatic modes, whilst the soldier’s vignette, being mostly wordless, is more obviously attuned to the documentary. Indeed, the latter is instructive as it demonstrates Bertolucci’s street level view of proceedings; The Grim Reaper is seemingly caught on the hoof, rough around the edges but intentionally so. During a couple of scenes we even have a character bump into the camera, yet it feels correct as opposed to amateurish, signalling the immediacy of the film.

As such we have a Bertolucci that feels more like early Pasolini than those more polished epics he would later produce. It’s a comparison that should hardly surprise given the two were friends. Bertolucci had worked as Pasolini’s assistant on his own debut, Accatone, another downbeat street-level account of pimps, thieves and prostitutes. Moreover, The Grim Reaper started out as a project for Pasolini (he receives a story credit) which he subsequently abandoned in order to pursue Mamma Roma, but not before securing financing and ensuring that his young apprentice - Bertolucci was just 21 at the time - got his place in the director’s chair.

Despite his age and lack of experience, it really is remarkable as to just how confident Bertolucci’s filmmaking is. As said, there’s a swagger to The Grim Reaper, a willingness to really tackle its subject and not be afraid to get up close. Unsurprisingly this also makes the film seem still fresh to this day. In part this may be down to the techniques employed - location shooting, handheld camera, an overall desire to remain as authentic as possible - but it comes through primarily in Bertolucci’s refusal to pull any punches. The lack of polish, the unsophisticated characters and dialogue, not to mention the immediacy, all make for wonderfully earthy cinema. Tough, brutal - certainly, but also an honest and genuine portrait that simply accepts what happens for what it is. The murder may be the narrative crux of The Grim Reaper, but it’s also a film which offers a slice of life, allowing those onscreen a little cinematic exposure they’d been rarely granted, at least in such unsentimental terms and without recourse to overwrought sensationalism.

If there is a flaw, then it is one relating to the episodic structure. Naturally certain vignettes prove more effective than others meaning that the overall intensity can waver at times. The structure cannot help but beg comparisons with Kurosawa’s Rashomon - there’s even a rainstorm which occurs at a key moment - although that film was much more a self-contained piece, never allowing its different strands to encompass various modes and approaches. Perhaps Bertolucci saw The Grim Reaper, in part, as a potential calling card, showing off his handling of semi-documentary methods, melodrama, crime drama, etc. Or maybe he simply wanted to cram as much into his first feature as possible, unsure as to whether it would be his last. As such it can feel a little inconsistent at times, but nevertheless the strengths remain. The qualities shine through far greater than the flaws and ultimately The Grim Reaper makes for a very impressive debut. And, of course, Bertolucci fully delivered on that promise following its release; the next ten years alone would produce Before the Revolution, Partner, The Conformist, The Spider’s Stratagem and Last Tango in Paris.


The Grim Reaper is making its debut on UK DVD courtesy of Mr. Bongo. The disc is encoded for Region 0 PAL and comes without extras (unlike the Criterion counterpart which found room for a Bertolucci interview). Presentation is obviously key then, and it’s pleasing to see Mr. Bongo provide one of their best transfers to date. The film retains its 1.66:1 original aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced, and has been taken from an excellent print. As such it remains clean and clear throughout revealing a terrific level of detail during the close-ups. There are flaws - haloing is quite heavy during certain sequences, the whites look a little boosted and that detail doesn’t always translate to the long shots - but never anything that would render the film unwatchable. The soundtrack is similarly clean and demonstrates a pleasing clarity (any issues would appear to be the result of the dialogue being added in post-production as was commonplace in Italian cinema at the time), whilst the English subtitles are white, optional and neither too large nor too small.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 12:36:56

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