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La Legge (The Law) (Jules Dassin, 1960)
Jules Dassin made a number of films which are now considered among the best ever shotRififi, Never on Sunday, Topkapi, etc. The Law is not one of themit's more low-rent soap opera/rural Peyton Place ripoff than it is classic cinemabut it's stupidly enjoyable and contains Gina Lollobrigida wearing a number of tight outfits. Put those two things together and is it worth killing an hour and a half with? Of course it is.
Lollobrigida plays Marietta, a small-time thief (it is never stated, but implied once or twice, she's also a hooker) in a small, impoverished seaside town in Italy. Half the town is in love with her, including her boss Don Cesare (Children of Paradise's Pierre Brasseur), a bedridden old lech who's actually the power behind the town, and the local crime boss (The Wages of Fear's Yves Montand) AND his brother (Violent Summer's Raf Mattioli), the public faces of the power behind the town, but Marietta only has eyes for Enrico (La Dolce Vita's Marcello Mastroianni). Problem is that Enrico is too poor to get married and Marietta is too poor to have a dowry. So she decides to use her skills to rectify that situation...
The name of the film comes from a drinking game the town's men play every night, something so bleak and hope-crushing that it may as well have come out of a Béla Tarr movie. The men gather at the local tavern to play The Law. They draw lots; the winner is selected as boss, and may treat the others as his lackeys for the rest of the night. (One must be careful not to go overboard, for the chances you won't be in the box the next night are pretty slim.) While it's mostly set decoration hereone assumes it plays more prominence in the book, which I haven't readit certainly sets the proper tone for this noirish romance. I mean, look back at that synopsis and see if you can count the number of things that could possibly go wrong here. (Or just say all of them and you're in the right ballpark.) Ultimately, that's the problem with The Law; Dassin sets the scene and then does everything with it as predictably as he can. The comparison in the first paragraph to Peyton Place, the movie version of which was released three years previous to this, is not casual. Still, it's a soap-opera good time with a lot of very pretty people doing very unpretty things, and it was made during the golden age of cinema by one of said golden age's favorite sons, so what have you got to lose? ** ½
Jules Dassin's The Law is yet another steamy film by the director which delves into the kinetic expressions of unholy, passionate, uncompromising desire. The desire which permeates this film is the desire to be the zenith of law; in other words, to stand atop a high, greasy, urban obelisk of sexual and monetary control in order to be able not only to enforce the law, but also to be in a position to create it. At the center of the film, where all chaos and interruption of this desire originate, is the lynx-like, buxom beauty of Gina Lollobrigida who plays Mariette, the evasive, tantalizing beauty of the village of Porto Manacore who challenges two separate, swelling patriarchs by showcasing her own law, which is the law of delirium-inducing, unashamed sexuality. The two patriarchs are played by the magnificent Pierre Brasseur as the scruffly, intimidating Don Cesare, a role completely different from his role in Eyes Without a Face which was released the same year, and by the incomparable Yves Montand, who plays the viciously dominating Matteo Brigante. Don Cesare, immobile and under constant strain, is desperately trying to maintain his power over the village in the face of sickness while Matteo is looking to take the village from him. This does not stop him from exercising his wolvish hold on Mariette. Soon she becomes the object of undeniable desire, her beauty the beast worth taming. But neither Yves Montand nor Pierre Brasseur have the real control. It's Marcello Mastroianni's Enrio Tossa whose humble personality emerges in the lead, the complete antithesis of the two patriarchs. It is his rejection of "The Law", referring explicitly to a drinking game which humiliatingly apes social and political power play, and implicitly to the demands of Brigante and Cesare. Tossa is cool, down-to-earth, and most importantly unafraid to be broke and still turn his charm on to the seemingly unattainable Mariette. It's a hot film full of breezy camera work, effortless performances with "iconic" written all over them, and a compelling plot representative of the constant struggle between those who make the law and those who defy it.
Monday, July 22, 2013
(1958) Law/ La legge
(In French with English subtitles)
"Law" as the movie is called is a type of game this small village sometimes plays and yet somehow echoes like this in real life. Based on a novel written by Roger Vailland which takes place in a Mediterranean community where jobs are scarce and the people living their appear to help each other. The movie has film veteran Marcello Mastroianni as Enrico Tosso which they nickname l'agronomo comes to visit a wealthy baron Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur) requesting for his daughter Marietta to be his servant for a reasonable amount of money. She declines but rather want to be married to him instead. What's resonating is the fact that it centers on this small community and it is interwoven together in which we as viewers can identify with since things were different back then. Was this about what happened when the Great Depression hit or when stealing was the only means of making a living? Director Jules Dassin does not say for he just presents the characters as they're without worrying what the audience thinks about them.
3 out of 4 stars
The release notes state that the role of Marietta (Lollobrigida) was greatly expanded at the producer's request. The spitfire, Lollbrigida, dominates this film, so it's hard to imagine her role diminished.
Definitely not the film one expects when entering this widely undiscovered gem. A rich story, full of vast characterizations, and some technical ingenuity (a beautifully crafted crane shot acts as the introduction) make for a pleasurable time. With a movie full of implied sexual escapades, it is hard not to use the terms such as pleasurable, sensual, or erotic. Gina Lollobrigida is a complete embodiment of all these words through her plotting character, Marietta. She drives the narrative - although there are some enjoyable sub-plots - and it remains a complicated, but altogether suitably compact one. Writer and Director Jules Dassin clearly knew what he wanted going into this picture and he succeeds with a complete and realized vision. The conclusion feels a little rushed and less sweet than bitter; everything leading up to it points in an entirely different direction. This can ultimately be ignored though when walking out and remembering how pleasing the ride was.
A rich and unrestrained exercise in aesthetic perfection and thematic excess, this is likely the craziest film Dassin ever made. Film buffs may go back for Marcello Mastroianni, but it is Gina Lollobrigida who steals the show as the promiscuous woman who seems to run "the law" in her own way, turning gangsters, lawmen and engineers into destructive machines. After making a whole slew of English language films, Dassin shows here that he is a master of human drama no matter the language, and that what the characters are saying isn't nearly as important as what the camera is saying about what the characters are saying. Like Welles before him, Dassin uses just about every camera move in the book (and a few you won't read about there) to create a totally expressive world where we are always within the drama at hand. Juxtapose the elegant visual work with an uproariously satirical screenplay and some bare-all acting and this unique package is complete, an indescribable gem that stands on its own both within cinematic history and within Dassin's career.
"The Law" starts with one of the citizens of a small fishing village in Italy wondering why a bird does not fly far away when it has the chance. Since it only makes it as far as the window of Lucrezia(Melina Mercouri), we know it is no idiot. Nearby, the prisoners in the jail can hear Marietta(Gina Lollobrigida) sing. Her family works for Don Cesare(Pierre Brasseur) while she tries to escapes the old man's attentions and refuses to be a servant, even to Enrico(Marcello Mastroianni), the new agronomist in town who she is interested in eventual marriage with. In the meantime, she occupies her time with getting the kids to steal a police motorbike(geez, they work quickly) which Matteo Brigante(Yves Montand) disapproves of.
Directed by Jules Dassin, "The Law" is a delightfully wicked dissection of the power structure of a small town, framed by a sadistic drinking game, while still maintaining sympathy for most of the characters. Since leaving may not be an option, what's the best one can do if one stays? The movie is also helped by the charms of Gina Lollobrigida who...I just lost my train of thought. Where was I? Now, I remember. The question is who is really in charge? The police? The criminals? Or the landowner? Regardless, progress is on the way in the person of the agronomist who is about to change the way things have been done for centuries, starting with the draining of the marshes to prevent malaria, which Don Cesare opposes because he quite likes them the way they are. And then there are the women who while technically under the thumbs of the men, seek to run their own lives and create their own rules.
Jules Dassin's The Law is an example of expertly written drama. It takes place in a small Mediterranean fishing village that follows a fairly strict hierarchy; at the top is the fatherly Don Caesar. The great thing about this film is that it can't really be described, since its focus is fairly wide. It is hard to pin who is the main character of the film, what is the main story, since Dassin weaves every tale together with great craftsmanship, giving each character enough time to really connect with. For a brief synopsis, one could say the film is about several men lusting after the sultry Mariette, one of Don Caesar's caretakers, but there is so much more. If you are like me and feel that movies today are too formulaic, then this film will be pretty refreshing.