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Let’s Go Slumming with Ugly, Dirty and Bad (1976)

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Of the major names in the film world who passed away in 2016, one that got overlooked a bit, at least among Americans, was Ettore Scola. A tricky guy to pin down over the course of his career, Scola was largely regarded as a comedy director but also showed a strong proficiency with everything from period dramas to surreal fantasies. FilmStruck is exposing audiences to more of his work with a collection of his key works, many of which have been hard to see in English-friendly editions for quite some time. Among these is Ugly, Dirty and Bad (1976), originally titled Brutti, sporchi e cattivi (a play of sorts on the Italian title of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [1966]). This earthy, hilarious and often disturbing portrait of life in the shantytowns along the outskirts of Rome is the type of stuff you never see in travelogues or glossy films about the Eternal City.

This film was a much-anticipated follow up to one of Scola’s more critically hailed hits, We All Loved Each Other So Very Much (1974), and first played via New Line as Down and Dirty, earning him a Golden Palm as Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. More overtly vulgar than his previous work, the film is an excellent example of the quirky humanism in Scola’s films that would become an integral part of his next film, the beautiful Sophia Loren / Marcello Mastroianni drama, A Special Day (1977). You can find a pretty good description of Scola’s M.O. here in the bio written for him during his art house heyday in the ’70s. To wit: “His particular mix of political humanism and biting satire has familiar resonance, reminding us of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Jonathan Demme. Scola and Woody Allen may be the most esteemed comedic directors on the current world film scene, but their canvases are quite divergent. Though Scola’s roots are as indigenously Italian as Allen’s are New York-Jewish, his work is less insular, his aim broader.”

If you’re familiar with Italian cinema, it’s obvious how much this film was a direct response to Pier Palo Pasolini’s Accatone (1961) over a decade earlier, which had focused on more rural shantytowns with fewer residents from southern Italy. In fact, Pasolini was originally slated to appear in a prologue himself speaking to the camera, but his death in 1975 precluded this from coming to pass. Most significantly, the environment in this film features younger residents whom Scola found could make a statement about capitalist excess as well. “The younger generations are also the ones most vulnerable to the consumer demands, the seductions of modern society,” Scola said in an interview with Simon Mizrahi and Anna Maria Tato. “They are forced into buying those superfluous consumer goods which a capitalistic society hammers into their heads as indispensable. For them, these goods cost much more, are much more ‘expensive,’ than the price paid by the middle-class buyer. To get them, they have to pay the price of crime, theft, and murder.” He also regarded the film, which originated as a documentary but evolved considerably along the way, as a “satirical tragedy” rather than a traditional comedy.

A longtime fixture around the Italian film scene, Scola got his start selling jokes to legends like Alberto Sordi and Ugo Tognazzi while he was still in his teens and writing gags for local radio shows like Hop-la and Rosse e Nero. It shouldn’t be much surprise that his films are a lot of fun, even when they deal with heavier subject matter; there’s an essential optimism and energy to his work that has also helped it age well. You can find a lot of little jewels digging around in the treasure chest of his filmography — this being one of them, of course — and if you’re really dogged, I’d also suggest hunting down a really wild comedy fantasy he made in 1966 called The Devil in Love (L’archidiavolo). Even with Mickey Rooney and Vittorio Gaassman in the cast it barely made a blip in the English-speaking market, but it’s a really colorful, inventive piece of work that’s long overdue for rediscovery. That film also features an absolutely epic, dance-worthy score by the great Armando Trovajoli, who scored the lion’s share of Scola’s films. His work is pretty impressive here, too, featuring a very catchy, pop-tastic main theme (inspired by traditional African-American spirituals, believe it or not) that’s among the composer’s best.

The only major name in the cast here is the very prolific comic actor Nino Manfredi, who stands out as the one-eyed father figure to the miscreants around him whom he believes are all trying to get their hands on his money. Much of the rest of the cast consists of non-professionals including many genuine shantytown residents. Due to the setting and casting gimmick, the film drew several critical comparisons to Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970), though you can also see it as a precursor to earthy slum-set comedies to come, particularly Pedro Almodovar’s What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984).

However, there’s nothing quite like the ramshackle, homemade quality of the neighborhood you see in this film, which manages to make a strong social statement while delivering loads of entertainment value. It’s a perfect reflection of Scola’s own mission statement: “I’m convinced that humor is one of the mainstays of entertainment. Humor has an exceptional cultural dignity and an undeniable value. It is never reactionary, but is always against someone and is never loved by the Establishment. Humor has the power to challenge, and as such is progressive.”

Nathaniel Thompson

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