Sunday, October 2, 2011

I AM THE LAW (Il prefetto di ferro, 1977)

In the 1970s, it seemed to be a commonplace of movie criticism that any movie, whether American or Italian, that advocated tougher police methods against crime was "fascist." The charge probably carried more of a charge in Italy, where fascism was born and living people knew what it looked like. As if to make a point, director Pasquale Squaltieri made Il prefetto di ferro about a cop getting tough on crime during the actual Fascist era. It's hard to be sure what the exact point was meant to be in the original pop-political context of Italy's turbulent Seventies, but from a distance the point seems at least partly to do with dissociating crimefighting with fascism, to show that real fascists weren't necessarily the most enthusiastic or relentless crimefighters. The ironic effect is to give us a real-life hero who, by the standards of Seventies critics, was more "fascist" than the fascists themselves.
Cesare Mori was not a fascist himself, and a point made in his favor during the film is that, in his years as a prosecutor he had been willing to go after fascist lawbreakers. Despite his perceived opposition, Mussolini sent Mori to Sicily to recreate some success the incorruptible official had had years before the fascist takeover. As prefect of Sicily, Mori (Giuliano Gemma) had carte blanche to root out the Mafia and all bandit gangs who plagued the island. In the film, Mori's task is complicated by how deeply embedded organized crime has become at every level of society, and how dependent so many poor people are on bandits and mafiosi. Mussolini's mandate goes against the interests of local businessmen, landowners and clergy, who rely on gangsters to keep the peasants and rabble in line. The local bishop asks mafiosi to help put protesting farmers back to work, complaining that Mori's efforts may make common people unafraid of traditional intimidation. But nothing stops the "iron prefect" until after he's routed the low-level gangsters, having cleaned one hilltop town out house by house and tunnel by tunnel, and begins to go after the upper echelons of society, picking up a trail that leads to Fascist officials. Fidelity to facts prevents the typical Seventies finish, as Mori is merely kicked upstairs into a powerless Senate, while the very official he was pursuing is appointed to his place in Sicily.

From the confrontations of horseback bandits and farmers (above) to the posing of dead bandits for publicity photos (below), I Am the Law often resembles a spaghetti western actually set in Italy.

Given Sicily's backwardness, only the occasional shots of automobiles and fascists remind us that I Am the Law takes place in the twentieth and not the nineteenth century. That makes for a picturesque period piece with much more action on horseback than I expected, given a modern thrust and urgency by Ennio Morricone's score. An aged-up Gemma is impressive as the unflinching Mori, who is not above calling out and blowing away a mafioso all by himself. He gives the part the right blend of stiffness and stubbornness for the rest of the cast to play off of -- particularly Claudia Cardinale as a bitter mother who sees more harm than good done for the poor by the prefect even while decrying mafia rule. The overall impression is that, in Fascist Sicily, the Mafia is just one among many contending and occasionally collaborating predators. Destroying one doesn't liberate the people, and it may be impossible to destroy them all by police methods alone.

From the perspective of Italian cop and crime movies, Il prefetto has it both ways. It gives audiences a hard-ass, no-compromise lawman to cheer for, while assuring skeptics that any war on crime is just a clash between styles of authoritarianism. By taking the leftist equation of crimefighting with fascism to its historical reductio ad absurdam, Squaltieri arguably refutes it.


venoms5 said...

Another thoughtfully concise review, Sam. I especially love the inclusion of the historical aspects connected with the film. I've not seen this one. I take it this is the Wild East disc? I will most definitely have to add this to my collection especially with the participation of Gemma.

Samuel Wilson said...

Wild East it is, venom, specifically the Claudia Cardinale collection with Damiano Damiani's Mafia/Day of the Owl. She has peripheral roles in both films but I suppose you need a reason to package a couple of films together. Prefetto is definitely Gemma's film all the way.