The waves crash upon pristine shores, rolling in from distant lands as they have since before people walked the Earth, and will continue to do so long after we cease to be. In between, they bear witness to a snapshot in time, as the camera sweeps up and along old country vistas. Even a town that appears immeasurably ancient is built upon even more ancient rock. This timeless tableau makes a fine setting for humans at play, doing what they do best – behaving like animals. As the water collides with and dissolves the primeval bedrock, the traditions of old can only decay in response to the sustained attack of time. For better or worse, time changes all, and what better way to consider this than to view the supremely entertaining The Law? This 1959 classic by Jules Dassin not only compels you to thank Hollywood for blacklisting the master into making the best films of his career in France, but also to lament the passing of a different era. The Law was made in an era on the verge of change, when men were men and women were Gina fucking Lollobrigida. The acting is appropriately broad, characters throw their heads back in massive throaty laughs, and the lack of visible nudity is countered by fleshy dialogue that throbs with double-entendres. Women are smacked about, people break out in song for no particular reason, men wear pencil-thin mustaches and grin with malice. Cliche ahead, but they do not make them like this anymore, and this really is too bad. Sure, styles change and color fills the frame, but this movie was pure fun for the duration, and was as sumptuous as Lollobrigida’s breasts.
In this southern European town, there is little work, and the town is under the control of Don Cesare, who answers to nobody but the reaper. The men lay about, decaying in the sun as there is nothing to do, and nothing to desire other than women. Women, on the other hand, jockey for a worthwhile hand in marriage and end up fighting over worthless men. This is a barren existence with few options, so the players must develop some very rough edges to survive. It seems that everyone is a thief; a gang of children disassemble a police motorcycle in seconds. Women bare their claws at a slight, while men must quickly establish who is the largest predator. This is natural selection at its finest, and the best example of weaponry is seen with ‘The Law’. This is a humiliating drinking game whereby one man is chosen at random to enforce the ‘Law’, basically saying anything he wishes to whomever he wishes, and none of the other participants may utter a word or take a drink – unless the order is given. This mélange of ego is volatile, and the greatest stirrer is Matteo Brigante, played by Yves Montand with causal menace. He leads the street gang, but has eyes for Don Cesare’s seat of power when the old man dies. He also desires the luscious Marietta, played by Lollobrigida, who matches her beauty with a taste for blood and a canny hand at theft. This is a land of tradition, where only the powerful men have a choice of women, and women have no choice whatsoever.
Into this crumbling citadel of culture and convention steps The Engineer, played by a miscast Marcello Mastroianni. Imagine the irredeemably corrupt gentleman from Divorce, Italian Style, 8 ½, or La Dolce Vita playing the straight man. It takes a great deal of getting used to. He was sent by the government and is there to improve the living conditions of the population, battling poverty, decreasing the prevalence of malaria, and destroying the essentially feudal system imposed by people like Don Cesare. He does not hesitate to threaten the old man over a minor point, and so impresses Marietta, who tires of the alpha male bullshitting that she simultaneously admires. Though this collision between old and new world is a recurrent theme, it never spoils the fun, and provides an unexpectedly melancholy context. Sure, the old times were rotten, but they were honest in their own mercenary ways. Filling the marshes reduces the spread of malaria, but ruins an ecosystem. Marietta wishes to find a cultured and tamed husband, but she is far more interesting when brandishing a knife. And the alpha male no longer walks upright amidst his peers. Maybe you find this to be an absolute good, but I feel that sterile times are, well, sterile. Things are lost, and not always for the better.
There is no plot as much as a society, and everyone plays their parts to the hilt. The Engineer’s efforts to change circumstances are awkward, and his ignorance is plain. Brigante merely waits his turn to take the throne while asserting his position as the puppeteer amongst his street gang. And Marietta plays men off each other in a substitute for power. Don Cesare grows sicker while he casts a forlorn eye toward Marietta, and the marriage he could never consummate. The streets get hot as tempers flare; Marietta is whipped by her sisters in a sultry scene that borders on exploitation, Brigante acquires another scar in a defiant strike, and The Engineer is seduced in a moment that ends with a figurative and literal noose about his neck. When he assures Marietta “I cannot get married”, she purrs in response “… yes you can” in a way that would leave any man with a pulse in total agreement. Masculinity itself is surrendered. The Law seduces you in kind in this palustrine atmosphere.
The Law has an uncomplicated structure, and features several subplots that make an interesting commentary on the primary action. Brigante has a son who hopes to run off with a the wife of a judge; the phrase “Je t’aime” never sounded so superficial. The father does not approve, and lays down the law with the fist of tradition. This does not go as expected, as does a subplot about the robbery of a tourist. Fun and games with a colorful story to be sure, but these also reflect a change in times. Parents lose control of their children, and theft does not do well long-term in a town with greater ambitions. Time marches on, and as The Engineer begins teaching the locals new ways to better their lives, women start wearing bathing suits and rebelling against their men. Still, this march is a halting one at best. In the centerpiece scene, Mastroianni and Montand face off, in a way, as the local men play The Law. And as Don Cesare warned The Engineer, “Go play The Law, and learn something about the men of our town.” Traditions are ending, but human nature is static. There is no absolute value of these changes – your opinion regarding this will say more about you than about progress.
The Law was screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival. It is not currently available on DVD, hopefully this will be rectified soon.