Jules Dassin's The Law is a
mildly ribald, occasionally funny, often meandering tribute to Gina
Lollobrigida's cleavage. Although such a tribute is surely well-deserved,
the film doesn't work hard enough to deserve our involvement in it.
Dassin assembles a variety of colorful characters (portrayed by an admittedly
stellar cast) in a musical-comedy setting, but doesn't have the gumption
to truly turn them loose. They are mostly caricatures, operating within
the imagined boundaries of Dassin's conceptualization of a European
sex comedy; as an American expatriate, Dassin doesn't appear to have
any special understanding of the milieu he is depicting. Dassin's
lack of sufficient cultural understanding here is not helped by the
fact that this Franco-Italian co-production is set in a small Italian
fishing village, with mostly Italian actors, but is performed (or dubbed)
Dassin rests the film's credibility upon the deployment of an eponymous
southern Italian drinking game, which, I learned from the DVD's extra
features, is alleged to have its roots in ancient Rome. A strange iteration
of role-playing, "the law" is a miniature version of the body politic,
with one participant being designated "the boss" and another
designated his or her deputy. These two then conspire to manipulate
the behavior of all the players, with the chief object of interest being
access to booze, which is controlled by the boss. The game is depicted
in The Law's first half hour, and the participants, as per the
norm, are all male.
But the film is dominated by a female character named Mariette, played
by Gina Lollobrigida as a willful skank who, along with her mother and
two sisters, is employed by the town's de facto leader, Don Cesare.
It is implied that Don Cesare enjoys carnal relations with each of his
female "support staff," and although Mariette harbors a kind
of affection for him, she dreams of leaving the town and enjoying a
more respectable existence. Enter a character known only as "the
agronomist," played by Marcello Mastroianni, an urbane professional
from the north of Italy who has arrived in the area to drain the marshes
and thereby rid the town of endemic malaria. Mastroianni looks askance
at the entire town, Mariette included, despite her flirtatious advances.
Thenceforward, we are asked to see Mariette as a "boss" of sorts,
manipulating her friends and neighbors to carry out her wishes in an
effort to achieve her own private ends.
Surrounding this central plot are a group of loosely connected subplots,
involving a sleazy power-hungry quasi-gangster played by a sneering
Yves Montand, the dalliances of the town's sheriff, and the troubled
affair between the judge's wife (Melina Mercouri) and the Montand character's
son. These subplots suggest that Dassin wanted to create a portrait
of the town on a broad canvas, using an approach similar to what Robert
Altman would later become known for. This ambition is betrayed by a
lack of character development, a reliance on stereotypes and clichés,
and unearned emotional crescendos that ring hollow.
The movie has its share of humor and melodrama, and Lollobrigida has
enough sex appeal for ten women - or ten movies. The local color is
interesting if not totally credible, and it's fun to watch Mastroianni
and Montand in early-ish roles. Dassin specialized in taut narratives
driven by characters overwhelmed by anxiety; the leisurely pacing of
The Law and its lighter, somewhat nebulous tone seems to have gotten
the best of him here. Too many characters and a lack of a focal point
prevent this otherwise breezy film from leaving a lasting mark.
The work of Oscilloscope Laboratories deserves an aside here. Founded
by the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch as the band's recording studio, Oscilloscope
has recently become a leading distributor of independent films in theaters
and on disc. Their selections are varied, idiosyncratic, and generally
of high quality. The DVD package for The Law reflects a considered,
thoughtful approach to releasing movies on disc. A well-designed card
slipcase, adorned with wonderful vintage (or vintage-inspired) poster
art houses a digipack containing two discs. While The Criterion Collection
currently remains the standard bearer for these kinds of classic releases,
it looks like Oscilloscope is the only other distributor even in the
running as far as restoration, bonus content, and presentation.
The full-screen black-and-white image is excellent. Good contrast and
detail suggest a full image restoration, although I am unsure to what
extent Oscilloscope is responsible for the image quality. However it
may be attributed, the image is very good for its age, with no evidence
of print damage or compression problems.
The mono soundtrack is clear as a bell. As I mentioned, there is some
visual/aural confusion, given that the setting is Italy and the spoken
language is French. Mastroianni's dubbed voice is particularly hard
to take, since it is so different from his natural one. However, that
aside, the condition of the track itself is fine if unflashy.
Oscilloscope has put together a handful of high-quality bonus features.
On the first disc is a commentary track featuring film writer
David Fear. It's a decent track, if a bit lacking in terms of the depth
of Fear's observations. The second disc includes a nice selection of
video-based content. First up is an extended Alternate
Ending (5:30) that incorporates a short scene showing Mariette taking
revenge upon her abusive sisters. Next is an episode of the French film
program Cinepanorama (13:25) that includes on-set interviews
with most of the principals. Roger Vailland, the author of the film's
source novel, is showcased next in a 1957 interview from the French
televsion show Lectures pour
tous (12:35). Most interesting of all is a recent documentary
called L'ultima Osteria (40:45) that documents the history
and continued practice of the feature's titular game.
Entertaining and occasionally inventive, The Law gets by on its
good performances and Lollobrigida's appeal. It's not a particularly
coherent or satisfying movie, but Oscilloscope Laboratories has gone
the distance in terms of technical presentation, art direction, and
bonus content. I look forward to their future releases. Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.