by Iñaki Oñate
Last year master filmmaker Ettore Scola died at the age of 84.
His career spanned more than fifty years. From superb screenplays
such as the classic Il Sorpaso (1962) directed by Dino Risi and starring
Vittorio Gassman and Jean Paul Trintignant, to his magnificient
directorial body of work that includes such films as C’eravamo tanto
amati (1974), Una giornata particolare (1977) and Il mondo nuovo (1982), Scola has proven to be one the most influential and powerful authors of
In the aniversary of his death I think it’s pertinent to remember the
genius of this author in one particular film that not only earned him
the Prix de la Mise en scéne at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival but
also stablished him as one the most shocking and critical voices of
postwar Italy and the economic boom of the 60s and 70s. The movie is called literally The Ugly, Dirty and Mean although it was translated for the english distribution as “Down and Dirty” (1976).
In this social-apocalyptic film Scola introduces us to the reality of a
poor family living in the slums located within the periphery of Rome.
Nino Mafredi is the lead actor, portraying Giacinto, patriarch of the Mazzatella family.
The term “disfuncional family” is an understatement. The Mazzatella household, or tribe (they’re shown at their most basic behavioral element) are predators among themselves. Thievery, incest and even murder are common currency in this family. There is no romanticism in their poverty. The limited conditions force these individuals to act without mercy in order to survive. Scola show us the type of existence that these people go through and somehow he makes you generate a kind of empathy for them without turning to patronizing or forced kindness.
There is cynism, written and shot so poetically that it reminds me about Accatone (1961) by Pier Paolo Passolini, as well as a sort Shakesperean quality to Giacinto. He’s the dying king of his private slum and everybody else wants the money that he has collected from the insurance and hidden somewhere in the house. A social landscape “painted” on the screen surrounds the family – grotesque characters that are tragic and appealing just like in La Strada (1954) or Amarcord (1973) by Federico Fellini.
A three-legged dog. A beautiful fifteen year old girl who that knows her inevitable destiny, as she sees older, prettier girls going to the city to sell their bodies. The children,left in a rusty cage as if they were pigs with rabies. The adolescent boys riding around in their vespa motorcycles in pairs, practicing their robbery skills.
In a time where we see the word socialism being used so freely and
many times so out of context, this movie appears as a true socialist
manifesto about the downside of capitalism. Very few artists are
capable of combining art with a political message: Goya with The
Horrors of War, Orwell’s 1984 and Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) are good examples.
In the field of cinema the line between anti-stablishment and
propaganda is very fragile. Due to the fact that film is an industrial
endeavour, it has to be part entertainment and part message. Authors such as Segei Eisenstein, Leni Riefenstahl and Oliver Stone are subjects of great debate as to where they are standing ideologically. Even Passolini, with his agitated and explicit stand for the poor and the working class, managed to generate an ambiguous set of ideas regarding the emancipation of the masses in his latest work.
Scola didn’t pretend to offer us a propaganda for a revolution or an uprising. He just shows us the misery, the pain and the ugly side that comes out of people living in hunger and ignorance. He shows us a world that exists in every city, in every country. Scola is saying: here is a world to which you have only given your indifference. These people exist parallel to you and they are neither good nor bad, they are just miserable and angry. The rest of the thinking is up to each one of us film viewers.
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman once said in an interview: “Film
has to come in contact with other human beings and an author has to be severe”. In relation to this we can say that film has to be severe in a political sense, in an aesthetic sense and for the purpose of entertainment. Ettore Scola delivered the ultimate example of this statement in his cruel yet engaging and somewhat humorous depiction of poverty and necessity.
Iñaki Oñate / Writer (Quito, Ecuador – 1988) Iñaki resides in Buenos Aires, where he studied film directing at Universidad del Cine. His short films have been part of the official selection at the New York, La Habana and Cannes festivals. He’s currently developing his first feature film with his own independent production company, Undergofilms. He also works in music and art illustration.