“Non essere cattivo” (Don’t be bad) is the third and final posthumous feature by Italian cult director Claudio Caligari who died last year from cancer aged 67, just before completion of the editing of the film.
A Pasolini-esque look at low life in Ostia in the 90’s, on Rome’s outskirts, the film was screened out of competition at the 72nd Venice film Festival and was selected as Italy’s candidate film for the foreign-language Academy Awards. Although it did not make the short list for the Oscars, Don’t be Bad was received immediately as a critical success. It went on to get the Nastro D’argento Film Of The Year from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, and won at least a dozen major awards.
What is most fascinating about this film is its uphill behind-the-scenes story and the struggle the director had to face to finance the project.
With only three films made in a 30-year career span, Caligari was the classic example of an outsider director, who stayed on the sidelines of the larger Italian film Industry, but nonetheless managed to become a cult auteur. His ground breaking 1983-debut masterpiece Toxic Love (Amore Tossico), a heroin dependency drama, which followed real drug addicts between Ostia and the ghettos of Rome, was snubbed by the establishment but became an underground classic. Fifteen years later came his second film The Scent of the Night (L’odore della notte) a noir about a former cop who turns to a life of crime, starring actor Valerio Mastandrea. It is thanks to the efforts of Mastandrea, Caligari’s friend and producer of Don’t be bad, that the director returned behind the camera and it was the actor who succeeded in securing the funds for this difficult project. The actor even wrote an open letter to Martin Scorsese in an attempt to obtain completion funds. He beseeched the Oscar-winning director for funding, and pointed to the hurdles in the Italian film industry with regard to setting up an independent production such as Don’t Be Bad. Scorsese did not respond but the publicity around the case eventually accomplished pulling together the financing.
Caligari imagined Don’t be bad as the third act to an “ideal trilogy of the Roman suburbs” ranging from the 1960’s to the new millennium. A trilogy that began with Pasolini’s seminal film “Accattone” a portrayal of the harsh conditions experienced by the marginalised Roman borgate in the background of the Italian “Economic Miracle”, followed by Amore tossico a docu-realist study of the explosion of the heroin market in the 80’s and its tragic consequences.
Pasolini was a founding influence in Caligari’s cinematic culture and his work is packed with references to his predecessor. Both directors came from the North and both remained fascinated by the universe of the Roman slums, the impenetrable slang, the gestures and rituals of their inhabitants, powered by a desperate vitality, an awareness of a doomed existence generated by a maladjusted consumer society. In terms of modus operandi Caligari’s approach was very similar to Pasolini’s. Working on the border between fiction and documentary he always sought the collaboration of the locals, living with them, making friends in their communities and selecting his cast among them, making sure they were always creatively involved. During the making of Amore tossico, Caligari spent months of research living with his protagonists, junkies and former addicts.
Caligari believed a true director must immerse himself in an environment, understand it thoroughly and then return it with great sincerity.
More than half a century later Caligari brings back to the screen the final act of what remains of Pasolini’s world.
Even though Toxic Love is referred to explicitly in the opening scene (the ice cream scene) and in the choice of the main character’s name (Cesare), Non essere cattivo does not begin where the first film left off. Rather, it is the continuation of it, or its necessary conclusion.
The film can be described as a borgata “buddy movie” following the life of best friends Cesare and Vittorio (reference to the real name of Accattone’s character) two marginalised young men, small time drug dealers and addicts from a working-class suburb in Ostia in 1995, when synthetic drugs, cocaine, fast cars and nightclubs dominated the scene.
Without real jobs or support from the families, they hang out at a roadside bar living their lives steeped in booze and cocaine, selling drugs and committing petty crimes.
Vittorio ultimately matures, he finds the right woman who helps him get clean and gets a job as a builder on a construction site. As time goes by, he tries to put Cesare on the right track with legit work but no matter how hard he tries, his friend always keeps going back to his life on the street, sucked into a spiral of addiction, attracted by the false myth of easy money. Left alone in his lucid madness, Cesare lets himself drown in the pain and grief that keeps tormenting him, first with the loss of his sister from Aids and then of his beloved niece. Incapable of making sensible decisions or, perhaps, as a form of self-punishment, he inevitably falls back in the path of self-destruction, letting the street and the drugs devour him once again.
Ostia is never reduced to mere background rather it functions as a character in its own right, as the main antagonist of the story, a powerful force that crushes our “anti-heroes” leading them to their inexorable tragic destiny. They are the innocent victims and the Borgata is their perpetrator just like the Mean Streets of Scorsese and the Banlieue of Kassovitz. In this world there is no space for self-achievement nor for self-acceptance, the only language allowed is the one of hate, fear, misery and drugs. In Caligari’s world, drug use is not portrayed as an instrument of rebellion or transgression but as a means to escape from reality.
The message Caligari wants to convey with this discomforting realist yet poetic film, is how hard it is for this generation to break free from their social destiny. The overwhelming sense of helplessness, the dullness of existence, the total absence of opportunity confer to the film a claustrophobic atmosphere, which is curious, since the story takes place mostly in exterior. It seems the characters are trapped in this open air prison, a cage with invisible walls from which it is impossible to break out. Their frustration is made more unbearable by the constant presence of the sea, the projection of an “elsewhere” that seems so near yet so out of reach, an horizon always blocked by lack of money and ambition. While Pasolini implied a silver lining in his Accattone, the hopeful belief that somehow through honest work his character could reach some kind of social redeeming, Caligari makes it clear that in this new era of consumer society there is no chance of emancipation for the marginalised. Things have changed from the 60’s, suburbs no longer respond to the same cultural codes of behaviour, and work, when you can find it, is no longer sufficient to satisfy the ever-expanding needs dictated by consumer ideology. Thus, crime and drug addiction are the only alternatives left. Even Vittorio, who is determined to reach stability and contribute honestly to society, in the end is destined to go back to selling drugs because that’s the only way he will be able to provide for his family.
How can you be good when the world forces you to be bad? This is the story of people who try not to be bad but fail because in certain contexts being bad is the only way to survive.
As Cesare tells Vittorio: “Life is tough and if you’re not tough like her, then you’re not going anywhere”.
Most of all Non essere cattivo tells the story of a great friendship, Cesare and Vittorio who are like brothers and notwithstanding their contrasting views, they remain loyal to each other until the very end. The bitter truth is that even though they take different roads, ultimately neither of them manages to save himself.
After this desolate journey into the deep hellholes of the suburbs, Caligari unexpectedly ends his last work with a close up of a baby boy, perhaps leaving us with a sign of hope for a better future or with a message that says “life goes on”.
What makes Non Essere Cattivo an impressive cinematic work is not the story per se which can be conventional sometimes, but the way in which it is told: the authenticity of the characters, played superbly by young actors Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi, flanked by the equally excellent Silvia D’Amico and Roberta Mattei; the realism of the suburban landscape depicted with flawless direction and cinematography; the subtle irony of the sharp dialogues that make you laugh even in the midst of tragedy.
This is without doubt Caligari’s most accomplished work, the missing piece of a brief yet powerful career dedicated to a “cinema of the outcast” that aimed at bringing to the screen the “losers”, the defeated, the people we want to ignore. Even though the film is set in the mid-90’s it is still relevant and compelling today for an Italian as well as an international audience.
Caligari said he could have made many invisible niche films that wouldn’t disturb anyone, but he wanted to make potentially commercial films. At the time of his death, he had written several screenplays that never took off or flunked before going into production.
Because of its uncompromising independence Caligari remained outside of the system in terms of production and therefore inevitably made a statement.
As his friend and fan Valerio Mastandrea wrote in his adieu: “His cinema has been and will always be political.”