The title of The Law refers to a sadistic drinking game native to southern Italy (where it’s also known as “La Passatella.”) The rules seem vague and a little elastic, but they invariably involve a boss and his underling denying liquor to some other members of the drinking party until they submit to humiliating tasks. In any given situation, there’s a boss and his thirsty subordinates, and everyone must know their place. It’s a microcosm of the culture that created it, at least as depicted in this recently unearthed 1959 film from Jules Dassin, whose reputation has justifiably swelled in recent years, thanks to revivals and DVD releases of Rififi, Night And The City, and others.
An ensemble piece that spans the social strata of a small fishing village, The Law shows policemen, peons, and gangsters working together with an unspoken understanding of the cruel harmonies that keep the town humming. The cast includes Marcello Mastroianni as an agronomist from the north who finds the village, particularly its aging boss, Pierre Brasseur, resistant to the change he suggests. Also resistant: a hot-blooded local in service to Brasseur (Gina Lollobrigida) whom Mastroianni wants to hire as a housekeeper. Meanwhile, an up-and-coming tough (Yves Montand) attempts to act on desires of his own.
It’s an overheated melodrama too complicated to synopsize, but skillfully executed by everyone involved. Lollobrigida’s performance doesn’t redeem her reputation as a second-choice Sophia Loren, but she throws herself into the part of an amoral, untamable girl who stands in for the soul of the town once Mastroianni and the wonderfully oily Montand start competing for her attention. (True, the part was written for a 15-year-old, and it often feels that way, but who could complain when she wears those tight-fitting costumes and clenched-teeth scowls so well?) Though he lets some saggy plotting slip through, Dassin remains on his game as well, casually observing town life, then ratcheting up the intensity in a handful of memorable setpieces. What’s most striking, however, is the way The Law captures the understated power struggles and potential for sadism in everyday life, and the way those struggles play out in the uncomfortably overlapping areas of sex and local politics. It’s a cruel game, and one that leaves no doubt as to who’s won at the end.
Key features: A lively commentary from Time Out New York’s David Fear and a documentary on La Passatella as it exists today.