Ettore Scola is a very precious director, who merely deals with simple short but meaningful portraits that don’t necessarily exault themselves plot-wise, but always come across as interesting on cultural levels, if not on entertainment. It is undeniable that films like these are needed. However, I must highlight the particular word I used, precious; Scola is always much too content with working on his portrait, and doesn’t really ever seem bothered by whether his films will seem slow paced, unfulfilling, and even pleasing to the common audience. He is very alienated, hermetic, and as a director, not commercially pleasing, although critically acclaimed, and rightly so.
In many ways, he is a painter, more than a film director. I find many similarities between Scola and the great Renaissance Italian painters, and the main one is that the concepts for his movies resemble the concepts for paintings. They do not go beyond the things that they mean to portray, but are effective in the portrayal of the themes and concepts. If we consider such a thing, I suppose we should also consider whether this hermetic style should hence be so openly sided politically. Furthermore, it seems to easy for a director like Scola to be making films about Jews is Italy, a plot that by nature is too one sided anyways. The beauty of this film, however, lies within the fact that he does not rely on the conventionalities of the genre, and in the end actually looks as if his portrayal is about common people of the times, perhaps not neo-realist, but with a tinting of old fashioned early cinema actualiuty films seen through the embellishment (and embellishment is another key word in Scola’s repertoire) of the camera eye.
Helping the film is the nature of the plot, that is very witty. The story is based around the times immediately previous to the passing of the racial laws in Fascist Italy. Two fabric merchants that work on the same street, side by side go from arch rivals. One of them is Jewish. The two start becoming friends as soon as it starts looking clear that the racial laws will be brought it, and that his rivalry will have ceased in the not so distant future. The problem with the plot is that everything that doesn’t involve the main characters directly, the characters portrayed comfortably by Diego Abatantuono and Sergio Castellitto, is weak and looks like a time filler. The love story between one’s daughter and the other one’s son, the friendship between the two families’ children, and more little details just appear uninteresting, or perhaps simply left to fend for themselves, not cared for too much. In that sense, it must be said that Castellitto and Abatantuono do not interact with each other an awful lot in the movie, in fact, they must share less that ten minutes on screen together. Sadly, I doubt anyone will notice Depardieu too much either. His character of the anti-Fascist school professor is the biggest wasted opportunity of the whole film.
Yet, although the film is hardly powerful enough to have a consitent impact on an audience, it still comes across as a nice work, mostly because of its aesthetic outlook; I think it’s safe to say that a single silent frame of the film tells more than the entire dialogue of the movie. Without spoiling it for anyone, the final scene is the most powerful sequence of the film, and there isn’t any consistent dialogue spoken through it.
WATCH FOR THE MOMENT – When Castellitto and Abatantuono lose their patience and have a physical fight with one another outside their shops. The fight is so vicious that Abatantuono directs him a racist Jewish insult which he immediately regrets.