La loi, c’est la loi (1958)

+++ Ferdinand is an upstanding, diligent French customs official proudly looking back at many years of service.
His eagle-eyed watch is all the more important as he performs his duties in his native Assola, a tiny frontier town with a complex border. In fact, the border between Italy and France runs right through the town, partly in zig-zag, often dividing streets into a French and an Italian side, and cutting the local pub in half.
And this is where all the trouble begins: because in order to be a French customs official, you of course need to be French. But apart from your parents’ nationalities (which in this town might be mixed and complex), the precise location of your birth also matters: in this town, even a few feet can make all the difference…. +++

This Italo-French co-production (known in Italian as La legge è legge) satirises bureaucracy, which both countries have ample experience with. And it aims to show that bureaucratic rules are not fit-for-purpose in a location where everyday life has to take place around a complex border. It also highlights how an individual can become hopelessly trapped within this system, especially if said individual wants to do everything by the book and is not accustomed to bending the rules.

So for Ferdinand the situation turns especially bitter as his innermost belief is that laws and rules have to be upheld in all circumstances. And this mirrors exactly the type of response he is now getting from French and Italian officials at every turn: “the law is the law” (hence the title of this film).

Being a border agent means he is unpopular with many of the townsfolk, and as Ferdinand gets sucked deeper and deeper into a vortex of bureaucratic absurdity, no-one around him is really able or willing to help. Only his nemesis Giuseppe (a prolific Italian smuggler and at the same time the husband of Ferdinand’s first wife) is trying to help him, but mainly makes matters worse.

This black&white comedy, which was not filmed in the border region but in southern Italy, features a lot of nice rural architecture, as well as some landscape shots (although the latter are not necessarily very cinematic). Famous composer Nino Rota was responsible for the film’s music. But this comedy primarily benefits from its leading men: Giuseppe is played by Italian comedian Toto; and Ferdinand is played by Fernandel (La bourse et la vie), known to many from the Don Camillo franchise. Fernandel simply has the right kind of demeanour to play someone who is down-trodden by fate, and Toto pulls of the “crook with a heart” character with ease.

In line with the niche that seemed to be Fernandel’s strong suit, this film is a subdued comedy with a semi-melancholic, sentimental, and in this case mock-tragic tone; and it is far more successful in creating its atmosphere than La bourse et la vie ever was.

La loi, c’est la loi starts out too slowly for my taste and only gets into a nice pace after 20 minutes or so. But after that, when the bureaucracy starts to bite, it is very entertaining. The ending is a bit weird, and I think it is fair to say that it has elements that would not make it into a mainstream comedy today.

While this is entertaining, and also a very nice watch for fans of Fernandel and Toto, it is not a must-see. I’ll rate it at 5.5 out of 10.

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