Saturday, May 13, 2006

Down By Law

I dont need to say much about Jim Jarmusch. You can find out a lot about him on the internet. I will talk about a film of his that I saw today. A film called 'Down By Law'. Set in Louisiana (New Orleans), it is a very interesting film about three guys who are thrown together by circumstances in a prison cell. Two of them are innocent, one guilty, by legal standards. But even the guilty one is not really a criminal. If you believe him, he really did not intend to kill the man. He was just retaliating in kind.

The movie shows how easy it is to frame someone and how there was nothing you could do about it. It could happen to anyone who is not respectable by social standards. Because let us face it, the scumbags who do not really have any future and who really have no money are criminals or, at least, most likely to commit crimes, right? I saw a similar theme in another movie recently. It was called 12 angry men. It is about these 12 men who are the jury for a case that involves a kid who is accused of murder and there is one bigoted guy in that movie who keeps saying that scums like the kid in question have the propensity to commit crimes and hence the kid is guilty. Respectability comes with money. If you have money, you are respectable. You will never be in a situation where you are assumed guilty at the start of the case. So, it is easy to frame people who occupy the lowest income groups (or lowest status) with crimes. The two innocent men in the prison cell belong to that group. One is a pimp who is introduced to us at the start of the movie as a likeable guy. The other is an out of job radio DJ, who looks, behaves and lives like a bum. Yet, we like him because in spite of being a radio jockey, he seems to screw it up. The thid guy in that cell is Roberto Benigni, who plays Roberto, an immigrant learning the language.

Actually, I do not mean that the movie makes any socio-political statement. The opinion in the above paragraph is mine and Jarmusch's use of the prison cell is more existential than anything else. [Pointed out by Dash]

They break out of prison and we follow their adventures in the woods, where they are lost and have no clue which direction to go. They find a shack in the middle of nowhere where there are bunks just like in the prison cell, contrasting their situation in the prison and now, as criminals on the run. In prison, they were forcibly held captive with no window to the world and yearning for the world outside (Roberto draws a window on the wall of the prison cell, which doesn't have any real window, telling us of this yearning). Now, on the run, they cannot meet anyone and they are isolated in a big jungle/swamp. They look for a shack to hole up and they even have a real window in the shack that they hide in!

One might make the mistake of thinking that this movie is about the two people (Jack and Zack). But it is as much about them as it is about Roberto, who is not simply a comedian in the movie. We learn a lot about Roberto during the movie. He is an immigant from Italy, who is trying to learn the new language and getting accustomed to the cultures of the new world. But it is more difficult for him to break through to others because of the language barriers and because his different behaviour makes him a joke, a person who is comic without trying to be just because of cultural differences and language trouble. One must also remember that an immigrant is also one of the most looked-down-upon figures in society. Take for example, the Bangladeshis in India (or for that matter, Bangladeshis in a lot of countries). Roberto suffers because he is a foreigner, but there is a happy ending for Roberto in the form of Nicoletta (Nicoletta Braschi). Whereas the other two go in different directions.

One thing that struck me throughout the movie was mirroring/contrasts/similarities. For starters, Jack and Zack. Roberto and me shared the same trouble with their names. The interaction/confrontation of Zack/Jack with their girlfriend/whore, who obviously love them in spite of pointing out errors in their ways of life and thinking. Jack and Zack get both set up by people caliming to be doing favours for them. The three principal characters have never met before their meeting in prison (except for a short interaction between Zack and Roberto, a scene in which Roberto is introduced to the audience). The contrast between the prison cell and the jungle (heck there is even a fight between Zack and Jack in the prison cell and in the jungle). And finally, the three go in different directions. Roberto gets settled. Jack and Zak take different paths (one leading east and one leading west) at the fork in the road. At the beginning of the movie, they are all shown as losers with a bleak future but at the end, the future is not bleak for them. They all make a new beginning at the end of the movie. Maybe, that is the point of all the mirroring.

All in all, it was an excellent film that is quintessential Jarmusch. The man is a revolution on his own.

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