Down by Law.

Roberto Benigni,i Tom Waits, and John Lurie star in this 1986 film noir style dramatic comedy set in New Orleans.ii

The film is glacially paced with never-ending scenes of the 12 Angry Men variety, which is to say that mimicking the classical stage rather than an epileptic seizure. Unfortunately, the audio levels in the old Garneau Theatre were painfully overwrought, not that the senior citizens otherwise in attendance seemed to mind as much.

Anyways, in the film Waits plays a stubborn and unlikable radio DJ while Lurie plays a soft-handed pimp,iii but it’s the younger Benigni that’s the stand-out performance and the real comedic star. As a wandering tourist with a deeply entrenched Italian accent and a seemingly broken grasp of English in an era and a place unwelcoming to foreigners and hesitant to meet newcomers’ hopeless attempts to communicate anything like halfway, Benigni carries a small flipbook with idiomatic English expressions in it, presumably penciled alongside their Italian equivalents. While hardly the sort of comedy with a broad consumer base, I was in stitches as Roberto repeatedly skipped straight over more basic language attempts and delved straight into the swamps of peculiar metaphors, similes, and expressions unique to the Southern US. When first entering the jail cell that would be the mainstage of the film, only to be coldly ignored by his two new cellmates, after flipping through his notebook Roberto quipped :

If looks could kill, I am a-dead now.

This yielding no response, after two more minutes of tense silence between the three new bunk mates, this gave Roberto room to try again :

Not enough room to swing a cat… Cat. The animal.

It’s never a good sign if you have to explain a joke, so it was no surprise that this too was met with blank stares from Waits and Lurie, but some weeks later into their shared penitence, Roberto found another expression handy while playing poker with the boys, an expression that would become a chorus chant as the three tried anything to lift their spirits amidst the bleak monotony of the prison.

I scream! You scream! We all scream! For ice cream!

The Californian dryness – the sheer dearth of brio in the script – made these seemingly benign moments oases that quenched the viewer’s thirst for sunshine every bit as much as the leading trio ; a trio that, it might be added, was mostly framed. Only Roberto was tried and accused of a crime he actually committed. The other two were variously set-up, not that their fates differed for the differing means and methods of their arrival. As we say on the links, there’s no picture on the scorecard.

But there are sure as hell laws.
___ ___ ___

  1. Benigni is best known – certainly to Hebes – for his portrayal of a lovingly playful father in Life is Beautiful (1997), although he’s even more broadly known for his jubilant and iconoclastic Oscar acceptance speech for that said same role. []
  2. Directed by Jim Jarmusch. []
  3. Nothing like some other pimps. []

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