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Investigation of a Stolen Life: I giorni contati 

Yvette Bíró


Now resuscitated (in a digitally remastered version) after fifty years, Elio Petri’s I giorni contati (1962), translatable as Numbered Days, appears as the most modern and innovative masterpiece among current releases. Simple and philosophical – linear, yet freely moving in the realms of the accidental and the socially defined – it appears to be a restless search for the meaning of ordinary, daily life.


At first glance, it bears the traits of early neo-realist cinema; but it is more than that. It is true to say that it avoids using any stark social-psychological drama; but it does not avoid profound emotions. It depicts a worker’s journey in the crowded big city of Rome. The streets, cars, and people in this post-war black-and-white environment, seem to be very familiar. But the substantial question that is at the heart of the film does not. The worker’s captivating experiences question engagement at a more fundamental level – the meaning in a person’s life. How we cope with the painful emptiness that aging and solitude brings to the foreground.


A middle-aged man, Cesare (Salvo Randone), witnesses the sudden death of somebody on a tram. He inevitably feels drawn into thinking about his own destiny. What events lie in wait for him, what does the future hold in store for him? When he looks around at how average people live their everyday lives, it is hard to find anything bright or promising. Cesare – 53, a plumber, widowed and sub-letting a modest room – cannot discover very much for himself in this situation.


‘The division of work in the modern world as seen from the point of view of the excluded’ – that is what Petri intended to show, moving beyond more direct complaints about poverty or joblessness. He looks at people’s deprivation at a deeper level; his perspective is broader. Life and death are confronted in an elementary way, revealing that, for many, the road offers nothing more than loneliness and a downhearted end. Yes, existence precedes essence.


In other words, there is no political opinion leading Cesare’s discovery. It is obvious that life conditions determine his vision, and his further options as well – how he can find his own place in the world.


Petri goes on to observe how average people trundle along in their existence. Their options are scanty, meager; earning their daily bread with banal, joyless efforts. Painful fatigue and cheap amusement keep them busy, but cannot provide any rosy ending. So Cesare decides to stop working. After roaming around in his so-called free time, he reaches the understanding that there is no encouraging miracle or happy solution. Helpless and troubled, he strolls around the streets until he arrives at the workplace of his old buddies  workers painting the zebra crossing next to the Colosseum in the dark morning. Black and white alternate on the pavement. His mates envy him because he seems to be free. In truth, nothing really solicits him to do anything.


Fragments of time in the constant buzz follow as he keeps aimlessly wandering around. This simple worker is led to wonder what life means and what it is all about. He meets various people: a professor invites him into his studio, showing him some strange art pieces. He enters an almost-clean public bath, where he unexpectedly runs into an old flame. He visits his estranged son and grandson, but cannot find any warmth or love there. On the beach, among the cheerful, half-naked women and kids, he is hopelessly alone. What is the meaning of all this?


After touching upon these common, trivial phenomena, and examining their nature, he wants to understand what their value is. But nothing gives him any illumination. Cesare stares at the people and cars, familiar or not. He notices a drover with three horses on the avenue: ‘Where are they heading?’, he asks the drover  – and the answer (is it grievous or symbolic?): ‘To the slaughterhouse’.


Moving along, he catches sight of his teenage neighbour prostituting herself. This saddens him; he is ready to offer her some money to help her get away from this cheap business. But to no avail. Even if he feels inclined to find a whore for himself, the enterprise does not meet with any success. Nothing can cheer him up: there is only a feeling of uselessness, facing old age, no more than the hoped-for pension, or the possibility of getting involved in some sordid mafia business.


Yet there is no wretchedness and no judgment; everyday events are monotonously dreary. He decides to go back to the village where he was born. It turns out to be an indescribable wasteland, with empty streets and abandoned houses. A farmer tries to comfort our visitor. ‘Winter is the best, since one can sleep a lot, and there is no work demanding to be done. Some wine will help’  and then he bursts into tears …


Is this nothingness enough to reveal a deeper vision? Surprisingly, yes. The story runs in a complete circle. Starting with death, it returns to the same starting point. Although there is no issue more serious than this in human life, Petri never handles it in a pompous or grandiloquent way. This restraint alone lends power and emotional energy to the film. Cesare is embodied by the extraordinary, mature performance of Randone, who manages to maintain a fine sense of humour  a smile of wisdom  – that accompanies him throughout these adventures. Body language is more authentic than words; it expresses past and present depth, and exhibits the traces that life has left on Cesare. Additionally, the sparse dialogue betrays refinement, created by (this is no surprise) the celebrity screenwriter of Italian cinema: Tonino Guerra.


The ending of I giorni contati is as smooth as its overall design. Cesare is sitting in an empty tram, alone, surrounded by darkness, and the conductor has to remind him that he has ‘arrived’. ‘This is the terminus’. The film is an unadorned, epic fable offering, in the most unsentimental way, its poignant truth. It does not depict reality but its essential transparency: existence.


from Issue 3: Masks


© Yvette Bíró and LOLA October 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.