Classic Power Plays in Jules Dassin's The Law

Those more amused by kitsch than kitchy-koo are directed to The Law—a vintage 1960 French-Italian co-production directed by the Hollywood exile Jules Dassin from Roger Vailland's Goncourt Award–winning novel, an intellectual shocker concerning the primitive power relations of a southern Italian fishing village. Left out of Film Forum's 2009 Dassin retro, a new, uncensored 35mm print turned up last March in Lincoln Center's annual "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema" and is now having its U.S. theatrical premiere at BAM.

Despite the location, there's not a trace of neorealism; as usual, Dassin's heart is with the Pop Front pyrotechnics of the 1930s. Set in a sunbaked Catfish Row, The Law is a movie of cartoon-like mass formations, singing urchins, and operatic outbursts—it opens with the town's midday torpor broken by top-billed Gina Lollobrigida's siren song as she lovingly polishes a pair of boots belonging to her master, the crusty local padrone (Pierre Brasseur). Snugly corseted and highly Coppertoned, Lollobrigida plays a flirtatious virgin half her age. (Dassin's notion of the role seems modeled after the manic gamine in Modern Times.) Everyone is transfixed by her cleavage, but La Lollo has eyes only for Marcello Mastroianni, the progressive young agronomist arrived from the north to drain the swamp—they have the best looks and the least chemistry of any couple I've seen onscreen this year. A sleazily mustached Yves Montand plays the town gangster, with Dassin's wife, Melina Mercouri, unhappily married to the local judge, reading Anna Karenina and making (very scary) eyes at Montand's college-age son.

Dassin can barely control this hambone cast—creating an entertaining subtext in a movie that, taking its title from the local drinking game, is all about who is best able to exercise their will on whom. Everyone gets at least one aria—Lollo's comes amid a frantic street fair in which she rhumbas with Mastroianni while boosting a piggy Swiss tourist's wallet. (Her next scene is opera buffa: Alone in her hideout, she rolls in the stolen money, making herself a crown out of the bills while humming Mendelssohn's Wedding March.) Montand has his moment when he attempts to rape Lollobrigida and gives Mercouri hers when they team for an incongruously jazzy hookup. Never the most subtle of directors, Dassin gets his chance to roll up his sleeves and wave the red flag in the heartfelt finale: "No more bosses!" someone yells.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

 
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