[Originally published in The Weekly, 1979]
…Another, more peculiar Italian film has opened this past week: Ettore Scola’s Down and Dirty. A surrealistic comedy bedrocked in a card-carrying realist milieu, it deals with a dirt-poor Italian family living in a shantytown. The catch is that the family numbers in excess of twenty—in-laws, outlaws, legitimate and illegitimate children—and they all live in one (1) crumbling hutch on a mudflat. Although their occupations include housekeeping, nursing, pursesnatching, and several varieties of prostitution, they have one thing in common: they all hate papa Giacinto and he hates them.
Story is rarely the long suit in Italian movies and Down and Dirty is no exception. Having established the basic situation—embellished by the fact that Giacinto has received a sizable insurance settlement for the loss of one eye, money that he must constantly shift from hidey-hole to hidey-hole and guard with a sawed-off shotgun—Scola simply plays it and plays it. He gets away with this, keeps it all interesting, because he has a truly grotesque sense of humor and boundless capacity for visual invention within carefully maintained limits.
Scola has the busiest, if not best, eye in the contemporary Italian cinema. His work is richest when most gregarious: give him a scruffy milieu and let him come his own lopsided way at narrative, and the results can be marvelous (The Pizza Triangle) or at the very least charming and idiosyncratic (We All Loved Each Other So Much). Conversely, A Special Day is enslaved by the classical unities, sweetly well-meaning in its humanism—a commendable but dull thing, seemingly conceived and executed for the purpose of becoming an Academy Award nominee for the Best Foreign-Language Film.
Down and Dirty is scruffy. Boy, is it scruffy! Giacinto (Nino Manfredi) picks his way across the mud, bumps something soft with his foot. Bends down (he’s half-blind in the one remaining eye), recognizes it’s a rat. The rat doesn’t run: rats are everywhere and people are everywhere. Ah, how close are the poor to the basic order of things! Damn straight. Giacinto kicks that rat high out of camera-frame; his foot hits the ground walking, as if nothing had interrupted his journey.
Copyright © 1979 by Richard T. Jameson