By Afra Nariman
Down By Law (1986)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Robert Benigni, John Lurie, Tom Waits
A comedic story about three strangers who are arrested in New Orleans and end up as cellmates. After some time of getting to know each other, they decide to escape prison together.
Down by Law is a display of masterful filmmaking in the purest sense of the art. It’s both visually and audibly immersive, it flows with style and grace, and it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious. This film is a work of art, made through the collaborative efforts of great artists — director Jim Jarmusch and his three stars, Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits, and John Lurie. Featuring the voice of Tom Waits, the soundtrack is mesmerizing and instills an artistic enigma around the simple, yet fascinatingly unique story.
It’s about a pimp (played by John Lurie), an unemployed DJ ( played by Tom Waits) and an eccentric Italian tourist (played by Roberto Begnini), who are brought together when each of them are arrested under unexpected circumstances. Zack (Waits) is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, Jack (Lurie) has committed many crimes, but is brought in after being set up, and Roberto (Benigni) is arrested for “accidentally” committing murder in an outrageous and shady situation. The three misfits, each from completely different worlds, learn to get along in their small, but lively prison cell; and eventually on Roberto’s idea, they decide to escape together, into the swamps and wilderness of New Orleans.
The film subtly plays homage to the city of New Orleans. In the opening scene, and beyond, we are given quick glimpses into the spirited streets of the city and the various characters who inhabit the mythical, yet genuinely grounded town. After their big escape, the three inmates run into the wilderness and we see the swampy side of New Orleans, consequently making us visually aware of the city’s grand dichotomy between its streets and the overwhelming nature that surrounds it.
The film does not tell an inherently upbeat story, but with a comedic aura largely provided by Roberto Benigni’s naturally quirky personality surrounding almost every scene, starting when the characters enter their jail cell, the film keeps you laughing and engaged the whole time. We first see Roberto approach Zack the night that Zack ends up getting arrested. He casually walks up to him singing outside of a liquor store and randomly says:
This short phrase spoken by Roberto to Zack so early in the film, before they even officially meet in prison later on, foreshadows the hauntingly beautiful message that exists in a cloud above the entire story. Anyways, distraught, Zack tells Roberto to go away.
One of the on-going comedic elements that Roberto’s character subtly exhibits on a consistent basis through the film, is that because he is a tourist and doesn’t speak English perfectly, he has a small notepad that he uses to write down and recite what he’s come to know as common American phrases or sentences. Often times, the phrases he chooses to say in certain moments are hilariously not relevant to the circumstances that he is speaking them in, which makes for some of the film’s most blunt and funny scenes.
The overall comedy that arises through the exploration of the dynamic between the three personalities is masterfully conducted and effortlessly flows from the beginning to the end. Zack and Jack are arrested well before Roberto joins them in the tiny cell, and quickly grow to dislike each other. It’s when Roberto arrives that they are able to finally share the same view on something: they both hate Roberto. The mysterious and offbeat Italian tourist continually mixes up their names, is constantly and abnormally cheerful, and engages them in unwanted conversation. The majority of the middle-part of the film takes place in the small prison cell, which provides an unparalleled level of intimacy for these three characters — two of which cannot stand the others who they share this small space with. Eventually, the three move past their differences and bond over small talk, cards, sharing their stories of how they winded up in prison and of course, through Roberto’s relentlessly cheerful and contagious humor. One of the most hilariously random moments in the film comes when the three of them are playing cards. Roberto begins to loudly chant:
Taken aback by awe and laughter, his companions Zack and Jack soon join Roberto in chanting, causing an uproar of chants from the entire prison. Roberto’s constant boldness and amusing outbursts provides the film with a certain lightness, randomness and improvised lively spirit.
After the three new “friends” escape prison and find themselves on a journey in middle of Louisiana’s vast and endless wilderness, they encounter many moments that threaten their newly formed bond. They almost break away from each other on multiple occasions, but always manage to come back together, with Roberto playing a substantial role in keeping their little group intact. In the end, they manage to remain “friends,” but each of them peacefully go their separate ways towards freedom, with aspirations for the “American Dream” and a new life.
Filmed in black and white, Down by Law is sculpted through elements from numerous genres such as film-noir, comedy, jailhouse, blues and even adventure. It’s a relatively simple and serious story, but told in a light and whimsical tone. It is easily one of Jim Jarmusch’s best films, and arguably his most poetic and precisely sculpted one in regards to showcasing his masterful skills as a filmmaker and artist. It’s one of those films that could never be communicated through any other median of art; you can’t tell this story effectively as a book for example — it’s a film in the purest sense of the art. It’ll have you immersed with its offbeat combination of music and visuals of New Orleans, its poetically calming pace and style; and it’ll have you laughing the whole time. It is the way that the characters interact, the timing of certain phrases or jokes, and the overall improvised style of writing/filmmaking that makes this film so unique and enjoyable to watch. Down by Law thrives on its unparalleled originality. It is a true classic and one the best films that came out of the 1980’s.