REVIEW: Don’t Be Bad
– By M Jones
I seem to be on a roll of not reviewing horror films as of late, but if I can be treated to these kinds of intense, underground indie films that bite into the complex marrow of human existence, I’m not about to complain. I’m a huge fan of foreign film and this Italian offering is gritty and filled with an uncomfortable pathos for characters you don’t necessarily want to root for. Don’t Be Bad is a study of the difficulties of escaping a life of crime and drugs, a common enough subject, but one that is treated without descending into its glamorization.
The film starts with a pair of wholly unlikable characters, best friends Vittorio and Cesare who spend their evenings popping E, snorting cocaine and hanging with other drunken lowlifes at an all night diner. For a westerner such as myself, I admit to a certain bias when watching an Italian film of this type, brainwashed as I have been by the glut of Scorcese and Coppola films that concentrate on the classier aspects of Mafioso goodfellas. But ‘Don’t Be Bad’ does not descend into this stereotype and the Italy we are presented with, mired in the recession of the early 1990’s, is refreshingly untouched by these glittering influences. The lives of Vittorio and Cesare are allowed a realistic evolution, one that follows the diverging paths of two good friends, as close as brothers, who are making very different choices for their futures. On a backdrop of a decrepit version of Italy that it is seldom seen in Hollywood films, frescos and quaint cobbled streets are traded for gravel strewn parking lots and abandoned lots. Even the beaches are tainted, a makeshift shack housing junkies who have strewn the shelter with needles, enough for Vittorio to be pricked by one of them. It is an ugly backwater version of Italy, filled with genuine poverty and tired immorality that rides high on parties and drugs only to crash into madness when morning finally arrives.
Claudio Caligari’s script never descends into sentimentality no matter how much drama he pushes onto his characters. Cesare complains about junkies and has a deep rooted hatred for them due to the death of his sister to AIDS, a disease that has also visited his only niece. The scenes between himself and Debora are touching, giving Cesare a humanity that he otherwise wouldn’t have, as well as the motivation to improve his life. But it is Vittorio who takes on that difficult challenge first, having become involved with a woman with a teen son and finding the unexpected opportunity to have a family. The need to become responsible overrides his party lifestyle and as Cesare becomes further embroiled within the grip of criminality, unable to make that leap into adulthood as Vittorio has done, the polarization of economic need and morality becomes further blurred. Cesare does not want to be ‘bad’ but he is unable to work without hustling and conning, he has no real moral backdrop within him to truly give up the criminal lifestyle that promises easy money. His relationship with Viviana, Vittorio’s former girlfriend, is a testament to Cesare’s inability to truly understand how to change, his perspective far different from Vittorio who is seeking a long term goal. There is no such understanding within Cesare, whose attempts at adult responsibility include squatting at an abandoned farmhouse and hustling Vittorio’s boss at the construction site. When Viviana expresses worry over how their relationship is meant to last, Cesare begs of her to live in the moment, and accept what is good for now. It is a stark comparison and contrast with his best friend, and the conflicts this creates are obvious.
It is frustrating to watch Cesare drown in his inability to change, where even a desperate family crisis and a plea that begs of him, “Don’t be bad” is not enough to alter the self destructive path of his life. By the end he becomes the junkie he so hated in the beginning of the film, and the frustration the viewer has for him has reached its apex. Kudos has to be given to actors Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi for the claustrophobic and intense portrayals of two best friends whose paths are at stark odds with one another. The painful realism of their characters’ portrayals hits home for the viewer, never fully descending into melodrama.
The struggle to change is not one for Cesare alone, and the film becomes a cautionary tale against judging those who are embroiled in the party and criminal lifestyle too harshly. Unlikable as their choices in the past were, both Vittorio and Cesare are trapped by them, unable to completely disentangle themselves from its bad influence. As the film wraps to a close, even the drug runners and petty thieves are bemoaning how desperation is pulling youth into their web, infecting a new generation. Vittorio discovers, much to his disappointment, that hard work alone will not cure poverty and that the life of a ‘good’ man is not much different in its close to the bone experience of life as a ‘bad’ man. The future cannot be predicted, and as a result all plans for it are left festering in uncertainty.
Much like the ‘Pusher’ series by director Nicolas Winding Refn, the characters of ‘Don’t Be Bad’ are unflinching in their lack of sympathy, mired in choices that have left them with little hope of escape. Born into being ‘bad’, becoming ‘good’ people means abandoning all of the survival skills one has learned, without any real guidance as to how to leave drugs and criminality behind. It would take a resolve of shocking fortitude to continue forward in a ‘good’ life without this understanding, a fact the film exploits with uneasy grace. To be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is filled with equal measures of hardship. It is clear that Vittorio will have to walk this tightrope for the rest of his life. Ironically, if there is hope, it may be in the infant Cesare left behind, with Viviana finding work and living with his mother and having, what appears on the surface, to be a normal life. But again, this is a difficult prediction to make. You want to root for all of the characters, for they are genuinely trying very hard to live solid lives. But the broken concrete and the shadow of used needles across rotted planks is always in the background. The real hope is left to us, the viewers. We alone are left to hope that they can make it.