Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gina Lollobrigida, Marcello Mastroianni, Pierre Brasseur, Melina Mercouri, Yves Montand, Raf Mattioli, Vittorio Caprioli, Lidia Alfonsi, Gianrico Tedeschi, Nino Vingelli, Bruno Carotenuto, Luisa Rivelli, Anna Maria Bottini, Anna Arena, Edda Soligo
Written by: Jules Dassin, Françoise Giroud, based on a novel by Roger Vailland
Directed by: Jules Dassin
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 121
Date: 01/25/1959

The Law (1959)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Drinking, Robbing & Flirting

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There was a time when Italian-born Gina Lollobrigida was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, and watching The Law, it's not hard to see why. She has enough ample, soft curves to make ice cream feel inadequate, sparkling eyes, a dazzling smile and a devilish personality; as Marietta, a resident of a small Italian town, she can seduce a man so easily that it's no fun for her. She'd rather toy with her prey.

Of course, the men who show no interest are the most interesting to her, and they include the much older Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur), with whom she lives and works for, and Enrico Tosso (Marcello Mastroianni), an agronomist who has come to town to drain the disease-ridden marshes; he refuses to marry her until he's established in business. Don Cesare is the most powerful man in town, and her connection with him lies through a tangle of history having something to do with her sister. It's widely speculated in the town that Don Cesare will eventually take Marietta as his bride.

There's a good deal more plot. We meet a judge and his blonde wife who wishes to run away with a young musician. The musician's father is a powerful man, Matteo Brigante (Yves Montand), looking to usurp Don Cesare by playing a number of power games in town, solving problems, connecting people, etc. The men of the town gather together occasionally to play a complex drinking game called "The Law," in which one man becomes "boss" and then either forces the others to drink, or withholds drink from them. (Matteo is a master of this game.) Meanwhile, Marietta manages to steal a half million lire as well as Matteo's prize knife.

I see I've dug myself a hole in trying to describe this loony, labyrinthine plot, but it's clear as day when one is watching the film. It's based on a French novel by Roger Vailland and directed by Jules Dassin, an American expatriate living in France and best known for the caper film Rififi (1955). I'm still not clear why a movie set in Italy and peopled with mostly Italian actors is in French, but I guess Hollywood makes plenty of movies in France with people speaking English, so it doesn't matter much. Regardless, Dassin establishes a wonderfully buoyant tone here, using the geography of the town, and connecting everything with plenty of long, traveling shots. The plot seems to weave in and around itself, but never trips or becomes tangled. There's even a "Greek chorus" of unemployed layabouts who take their place on a bench every day. The smell of passion and power are in the very air.

Stars Mastroianni and Montand are as terrific here as they've ever been, and perhaps lighter in spirit than in most of their other films, but it's Lollobrigida who owns the film. Her sex appeal and power cannot be underestimated, and there are very few actresses alive today that could match her. In the film, women are not allowed to play "the law," but if they were Lollobrigida would have them all begging for mercy.

Oscilloscope has released a spectacular new two-disc DVD set of this film, including a commentary track by my friend, film critic Dave Fear, of Time Out New York. The second disc includes an alternate ending, a trailer, some vintage interviews, and a new featurette about the game "The Law."

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